How Meditation Stops Rumination

We’ve all experienced the cyclical, repetitive thinking of rumination. Rumination can be as benign as briefly replaying a conversation with our co-worker, wondering if we said the right thing. In its worst cases, it’s the obsessive thinking that’s connected to OCD, depression or anxiety disorder. Scientists say understanding rumination can help us stop. So can mindfulness and meditation
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
what is rumination?
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

In this article, learn what rumination is, what happens in the brain and body when we are ruminating and how meditation can give relief.

What Is Rumination?

Researchers are still grappling with a singular definition and a standard means of measuring it, yet rumination has been extensively studied. Ruminating is most commonly defined as

‘repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences, and symptoms of current negative affect.’

Anyone who’s been trapped in obsessive or repetitive thinking understands it’s not beneficial. So why do we do it?

Ruminating & Emotional Regulation

The most widely accepted theory is that rumination is an erroneous emotional regulation strategy. This avoidant coping strategy has the unfortunate effect of increasing the very thing we’re trying to avoid, negative thought. Rumination eventually spurs depression or anxiety, at which point mental flexibility becomes worse. Rumination thus reinforces itself.

A second theory supposes that rumination arises in response to lack of emotional awareness. The absence of clarity on what we’re feeling, combined with intolerance for uncertainty, can trigger ruminative thinking.

Ruminating As Catastrophic Thinking

Rumination is also connected to obsessive, catastrophic thinking. When we ruminate a common, innocuous thought such as “my bank account is a little low, I should watch my spending” becomes “I’ll never earn enough money and I’ll suffer for the rest of my life” which becomes “I’m going to die of poverty under a bridge and everyone who thought I’d never amount to anything will be right.”

Catastrophic thinking builds in part because rumination is connected to memory. When we’re ruminating, the brain connects our negative thoughts to every other time we’ve felt that way. This strengthens our perception of negative occurrences.

Read more: A similar experience to rumination is the anxiety spiral – learn more about in our in-depth article.

Ruminating & The Past

When ruminating, we tend to focus on the causes or consequences of our pain and distress, not the solutions. Rumination is associated with less effort and less confidence in problem solving.

Researchers differentiate rumination from worry because it is focused on the past, versus preparing for the future. While worry can sometimes stimulate motivation, there is rarely a positive outcome to rumination.

Ruminating & The Body

Ruminating is related to disordered somatic awareness, especially regarding the perception of physical pain. Rumination can increase in response to pain, and may also result in greater physical distress. Cognitive over-focusing on pain has the effect of magnifying both perceived and actual symptoms. One study found rumination was the sole predictor of the extent to which patients would feel pain after a surgical procedure.

Rumination, Depression & Anxiety

In its most insidious cases, rumination leads to or exacerbates depression and anxiety. In fact, rumination co-occurs with general anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder 60% of the time. Historically, rumination has been related to depression, while worry is more often studied in conjunction with anxiety. However, rumination predicts symptoms of both depression and anxiety.

Ruminating is closely tied to feelings of self-criticism, self-pity, worthlessness and inadequacy. Researchers have found low self-esteem is also a predictor of rumination, which in turn is a known predictor of mental illness.

Read more: In an honest and insightful article, psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter draws on her own healing journey and shares tips on how to overcome depression.

Breaking The Cycle: How To Stop Rumination

When in a cycle of obsessive negative thinking, we fixate on past negative memories. To stop rumination, it’s helpful to intentionally remember when things went right, and to get grounded in the present moment.


Gratitude is the practice of purposefully recognizing the positive and giving thanks. If we learn to see everything as a learning opportunity, we can even be grateful for the negative and thereby transform it into a positive.

To stop cyclical negative thinking, make a list of at least 3 things you’re grateful for in the present moment. Put your list into action by saying thank you to someone. Gratitude is inversely related to experiences of rumination.

explore free gratitude meditation

Body Sensation

Positive sensations such as happiness, joy, peace and contentment are all felt in the body. Body awareness practices not only shift our focus from past to present, but help open our awareness to the positive feelings that are available when we’re aware.

A 2016 study on interoceptive awareness, awareness of the internal state of the body, found when body awareness was high, rumination was low. Participants were asked to pay attention to the beat of their heart. Those who succeeded in this activity reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

When rumination is getting the better of you, do a quick body scan (we offer hundreds of free guided practices). Notice what physical sensations are present. Let this awareness take you away from the fantasies in your head and back to the here and now.

Read more: Despite our tendency to neglect it, the body has its own quiet honesty and dignity in how it processes the world. Explore how the body stores tension.


Numerous studies link time spent in nature to a reduced stress response, increased feelings of subjective well-being, and positive mood. A 2015 study on why found those who spent time walking through nature showed reduced activity in the area of the brain responsible for rumination. The researchers hypothesized that by decreasing rumination, time spent in nature protects against the development of mental illness.

When obsessive thinking becomes overwhelming, get outside, take a walk, or plan an active weekend in the country.

Bookmark or follow the beautiful playlist below to feel like you are out in nature! Guided meditations, visualizations and ambient music take you on a walk in the woods to recharge.

forest visualization

How Mediation Relieves Rumination

A consistent and long term meditation practice is correlated with less reported rumination and symptoms of depression. Even a ‘brief period of mindfulness’ as one study claims, seems to be helpful in exiting a ruminative state. Not only that, practicing mindfulness is much more effective at stopping rumination than problem solving.

Mindfulness reduces the extent to which general ruminative thoughts become self-perpetuating and uncontrollable. Self-critical rumination is diminished by metacognition, awareness of the thought process. This type of awareness is strengthened through the practice of meditation.

Meditation keeps us present and teaches us that we are not our thoughts, nor are our thoughts always correct. Meditation also softens focus on the self and builds self-compassion. All are qualities which cease and prevent rumination, anxiety, and depression.

Improving Emotional Awareness

Rumination entails a disconnect from reality, especially as ruminative thinking becomes obsessive or paranoid. A 2020 study found while excessive rumination leads to paranoia, emotional awareness has the opposite effect. The researchers suggest further investigating mindfulness of emotions as a possible prevention for rumination-related psychosis. 

Through meditation, we become aware of our thoughts and emotions and are able to look upon them as if from a distance. We can notice our emotions without identifying with them. We can even be present with uncertainty regarding our emotions. Within the space created by meditation we have room to change our perspective, to choose not to believe what we think, and space to allow our thoughts and emotions to dissipate.

Softening Self-Focus

Numerous studies have found heightened self-focused attention plays a powerful role in various psychological disorders. When we’re ruminating, depressed and anxious, we’re focused on me and mine.

Mindfulness softens this self-focus by transforming it into self-awareness. Healthy self-awareness includes the following:

  • Agency over our own thoughts and actions 
  • Awareness of emotions versus identification with emotions 
  • A clear distinction between reality and imagination or fantasy 
  • The ability to integrate new perspectives of ourselves and others

The ability to hold this type of healthy insight about the self is inversely associated with rumination. Meditation guides us inward and teaches us about the patterns and habits of our minds. It’s the key to developing insightful self-awareness.

Increasing Self-Compassion

Because rumination is closely associated with low self-esteem and self-criticism, it stands to reason that a compassion practice can alleviate rumination. Research supports this theory. Those who rank high on self-compassion experience fewer instances of rumination and depression.

Compassion practices also have the effect of reducing self-focused attention. By building our capacity for walking in the shoes of others, we realize the emotions we feel are not ours alone to bear, but have been experienced by others for thousands of years. We become more connected to others and feel less alone.

Explore hundreds of guided self-compassion meditations on Insight Timer.

A steady meditation practices nips ruminative thoughts in the bud by giving us awareness, teaching us to take ourselves less seriously, and building within us a felt sense of connection to all of humanity.

Meditation. Free.