How to Stop Ruminating Thoughts with Meditation

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

Many of us have found ourselves caught in the repetitive loop of rumination. It can be as mild as replaying a conversation and wishing we’d said something different. But in its worst forms, rumination can be debilitating, characterized by overthinking and cyclically getting stuck in negative emotions. Read on to learn why we ruminate, the effects of rumination, and how to make it stop.

What is rumination? 

Researchers continue to grapple with accurately defining and measuring rumination even with extensive study. But broadly, rumination is the act of thinking repetitively about the causes and effects of our negative emotions, particularly relating to problems or past events. 

Common signs of rumination

Rumination can present itself in many ways, both emotionally and physically. The common signs to look out for include:

  • dwelling on distressing emotions
  • being unable to let go of past events or perceived mistakes
  • worst-case scenario thinking
  • getting stuck in a loop of negative thoughts
  • heightened sensitivity to stressors or potential problems
  • anticipation anxiety

The difference between rumination and emotional processing

Rumination is linked to emotional regulation in a complicated way. It is both a coping mechanism and an obstacle to emotional well-being. While it offers a short-term sense of control over distressing emotions, this avoidant coping strategy can feed negative thought patterns and make feelings of anxiety and depression worse. 

Whereas rumination amplifies negative emotions, emotional processing helps us understand and accept them. Emotional processing is not only active and purposeful, but it also fosters emotional growth and resilience.  

What are examples of rumination?

Ruminating thoughts can look different from person to person. People can ruminate over personal relationships, work, health, or other aspects of life. Even the ways in which we ruminate can vary — some may experience intrusive thoughts while others spend long periods brooding over past events or mistakes.

Dwelling on negative emotions 

Rumination can involve fixating on worrisome feelings. It has been shown to lead to or worsen depression and anxiety. Those prone to this type of thinking often experience overwhelming feelings of:

  • worthlessness
  • inadequacy
  • despair

Reflecting on the past

It’s easy for rumination to become a barrier to emotional healing and growth, trapping people in a cycle that blocks them from moving forward. When people get stuck in rumination, they often replay stressful events and ceaselessly analyze the causes.

Unlike worry, which typically revolves around future uncertainties, rumination is a retrospective loop. Becoming overly focused on past negative experiences can lead to an obsession with the origins of despair rather than the potential solutions. 

Catastrophic thinking

Another way rumination shows itself is through catastrophic thinking. This type of rumination magnifies daily issues into seemingly insurmountable problems, fueling feelings of dread and hopelessness. Telling the difference between realistic concerns and irrational fears is even more challenging when we’re overwhelmed by intense emotions, which can cause paralyzing cycles of anxiety. 

Not sure if you’re experiencing rumination or an anxiety spiral? Read our in-depth article on anxiety spirals to learn how to differentiate the two.

Analyzing and problem-solving

Ruminating can also look like obsessing over things that went wrong and overanalyzing in an attempt to solve problems. Paradoxically, this often hinders us from finding a solution. Many people who deal with perfectionism engage in overthinking and constantly seek to improve outcomes — no matter how unattainable.

Looking to ground yourself in the present through meditation? Try this guided practice to help calm your overactive mind whenever you find yourself stuck in a mental loop.

What causes rumination?

The causes of rumination are widely debated and can be attributed to a range of factors, including: 

  • psychological
  • cognitive
  • lifestyle
  • environmental

People prone to rumination may struggle with emotional regulation, and many have something else in common: the presence of other mental health conditions, such as OCD, depression, PTSD, disordered eating, etc. Environmental factors and life events, like chronic stress, trauma, or social isolation, can also play a big role in a person developing obsessive thought patterns.

How to stop rumination 

The good news is there are ways to stop rumination! By creating a toolkit of cognitive, behavioral, and mindful techniques, it’s possible to break the cycle of negative, repetitive thoughts and learn healthier coping mechanisms. 

Visit a yoga class

Yoga classes offer an excellent way to ground our bodies in the present moment. Additionally, you can find support in the yogic community by surrounding yourself with like-minded people. 

Unsure where to start? Hatha yoga is a great option for practitioners of all levels. This style of yoga focuses on breath control, physical postures (asanas), and meditation to promote harmony and balance. It also has numerous mental and emotional benefits, including stress reduction, relaxation, and more.

Check out our free hatha yoga guided meditations to center yourself and calm your body and mind.

Practice gratitude 

Gratitude can offer a shift in perspective that disrupts negative thought patterns. By recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of our lives, we can slowly reprogram our mindset to one of hope and positivity. 

Research suggests that practicing gratitude not only enhances emotional well-being but also reduces the likelihood of engaging in repetitive negative thinking. Gratitude techniques you can try include:

  • keeping a gratitude journal
  • adding grateful reflections to your bedtime routine
  • expressing appreciation to others
  • practicing gratitude affirmations

Ready to add gratitude to your daily practice? Explore Insight Timer’s vast library of free guided gratitude meditations led by top teachers around the world.

explore free gratitude meditation

Spend time in nature

Spending time in nature is linked to a reduced stress response and decreased activity in brain regions associated with rumination, negative thinking, and low moods. Harness the therapeutic benefits of nature by: 

  • taking leisurely walks in the park
  • going for a picnic
  • hiking along forest trails
  • sitting in a garden

Looking to recharge with the sounds of nature? Bookmark this forest playlist for comforting meditations, visualizations, and ambient music! 

Try mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation can teach you how to observe your thoughts without attachment or judgment. By focusing attention on the present moment, meditation interrupts the cycle of repetitive negative thinking about the past. According to the International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, consistent and long-term meditation practice is correlated with less rumination and symptoms of depression. 

If long meditative sessions seem like a challenge, try starting with just a few minutes a day. Meditation doesn’t need to be long in order to be effective. You can slowly build up to longer sessions as you become more consistent in your practice. 

Explore Insight Timer’s thousands of free mindfulness meditations to practice nonjudgmental awareness and presence.

Talk to a mental health professional

If you feel like rumination is significantly impacting your quality of life, you’re not alone. Still, it’s important to seek medical advice from a mental health professional, especially for adolescents. A specialist can provide much-needed validation, tailored guidance, and an action plan for addressing the cycle.  

How meditation helps rumination

Improves emotional awareness

Practicing mindful meditation helps you recognize and acknowledge your emotions as they come up. Research suggests that meditation strengthens neural pathways associated with emotional regulation and awareness of your thought processes. Through regular meditation, you can:

  • observe your thoughts and feelings with curiosity and acceptance
  • understand your emotional responses and experiences better
  • become resilient to rumination spirals
  • develop more balanced coping strategies for challenging emotions

If you’re looking to cultivate deeper emotional insight, try this free introduction to somatic emotional awareness course.

Increases self-compassion

Meditation serves as a potent catalyst for self-compassion and acceptance. By showing kindness to yourself in moments of difficulty, you can reduce the self-critical tendencies associated with rumination. Meditation practices, studies show, can significantly enhance self-esteem, help alleviate ruminating thoughts, and promote forgiveness toward ourselves. 

Insight Timer offers hundreds of thousands of free meditations with 80+ new additions daily. Explore these free self-compassion meditations to help you practice loving-kindness toward self. 

Softens self-focus

Studies have found that heightened self-focus, like rumination, plays a powerful role in some psychological disorders. While being preoccupied with ourselves isn’t uncommon, the potential negative impacts are clear. 

Enter meditation: A study in the Journal of Psychology suggests that meditating can shift us from self-preoccupation to self-awareness, promoting a more balanced perspective on our experiences and identities. This helps us understand that we’re not defined by our internal narratives. 

Begin to soften your self-focus with this ego surrender & healing guided meditation.

What are the effects of rumination?

Mental health effects

Increased stress and anxiety

Constant dwelling on distressing thoughts or emotions can cause anxiety and magnify perceived problems. The persistent cycle happens when stress and anxious feelings continue to fuel more rumination, making it even harder to become present and calm the nervous system. Individuals with a generalized anxiety disorder are more prone to this cycle.

Higher likelihood of depression

Rumination can be a never-ending, draining mental battle. Research shows that ruminating thoughts don’t occur in isolation: They’re usually accompanied by general anxiety and major depressive disorders 60% of the time. Additionally, depressive rumination is closely intertwined with low self-esteem. Those feelings of vulnerability and negative self-image can contribute even further to depressive symptoms.

Difficulty concentrating

Concentrating is unsurprisingly hard when your mind is constantly preoccupied. It’s like trying to read a book while someone whispers negative comments in your ear – your mind keeps going back to the same troubling thoughts. Until you’re able to quiet the repetitive stressors, paying attention or taking in new information will likely be challenging.

Lower cognitive function

We have a limited supply of mental resources at any given time. When we’re busy engaging in repetitive negative thinking, those resources become consumed, leaving very little available for other mental tasks. This internal overload can impact:

  • attention
  • memory
  • problem-solving
  • decision-making
  • reaction times

Physical health effects

Elevated heart rate 

Even when we experience negative thoughts, our bodies respond as if we’re facing a real threat, triggering our fight-or-flight response. This leads to an increase in heart rate—it’s like our body’s alarm system going off, preparing us to deal with danger even though the threat isn’t physically there.

Changes in appetite 

Rumination puts our minds and bodies under a lot of pressure. And when we don’t have a healthy release for difficult emotions, it can impact our eating habits. Some people lose their appetite, while others turn to food for comfort. Regardless of which coping mechanism one uses, studies confirm that greater rumination is correlated with eating disorder symptoms.

Compromised immunity

As mentioned above, ruminating can intensify other stressors due to its cyclical nature — the result can be stress that never seems to end. But it doesn’t stop there. Chronic stress, studies confirm, can lead to a weakened immune system. This diminishes our ability to fight off infections and diseases, increasing the likelihood of getting sick.  

High blood pressure

Another physical manifestation of stress is high blood pressure. If ruminating thoughts linger for too long, our heart health might also pay the price. Specifically, angry rumination (associated with hostility) is believed to have more impact on the cardiovascular system than sadness rumination (connected to depression). 

Can rumination be used in a healthy way?

When we think of rumination, we typically associate it with negative effects on our well-being. However, rumination isn’t damaging in all contexts. 

While persistent rumination can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression, some people are exploring the concept of “positive rumination.” Positive rumination involves focusing on optimistic and pleasant thoughts that affirm more upbeat emotions. It can also entail flipping our reflective thinking to focus on constructive problem-solving or self-improvement. 

Ultimately, the difference between adaptive and maladaptive rumination is how much it hinders or helps us to fully and actively participate in our daily lives.


Is rumination a mental illness?

Rumination is not considered a standalone mental illness. Instead, mental health professionals view it as a pattern of thinking that is a symptom of various mental health conditions. It can be associated with:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

How can I differentiate between reflective thinking and rumination?

The difference between reflective thinking and rumination has to do with the intention, content, and impact of your thoughts. Reflective thinking typically involves an intentional look at your thoughts, emotions, and experiences with the goal of learning or problem-solving. Self-reflection often leads to:

  • insights
  • personal growth
  • informed decision-making

On the other hand, rumination is often backward-looking, repetitive, and unproductive. Thoughts tend to be ruminative if they are putting too much focus on:

  • bothersome emotions
  • past negative events
  • perceived failures
  • self-criticisms or flaws

How does cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help with rumination?

Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers a structured and evidence-based approach to dealing with rumination by targeting distorted thought processes, beliefs, and behaviors. CBT can help us recognize ruminative thinking, challenge those thoughts, and create more balanced perspectives. 

Can rumination affect your brain?

Neuroscientific research suggests that rumination causes certain areas in the brain to become hyperactive. These areas correspond to the default mode network (DMN), and it’s associated with attention, self-referential processing, and memory recall. When the DMN becomes hyperactive, it can lead to decreased cognitive control, easier access to negative memories, less effective emotional regulation, and more.


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Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be considered as medical advice. If you have concerns about low back pain or any other conditions mentioned in this article, please seek a medical professional for help.

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