We've all done it: late at night when we're trying to fall asleep and a thought keeps playing in your mind. Maybe it's the memory of a conversation you wish had gone differently, a problem you hope to solve or an opportunity you wish you'd jumped on. Your brain hits replay again and again and you rehash the information over and over.

Once in a while this kind of over-thinking, called rumination, leads to breakthrough moments, but sometimes, it leads down a wormhole and nothing gets solved. In fact, the problem gets darker and darker, and for some people, it may lead to depression. 

Women's natural problem-solving styles and thought processes make them more likely to ruminate than men, says Yale psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, author of Women Who Think Too Much (Holt Paperbacks) and The Power of Women (Times Books). Perhaps, not coincidentally, women are also twice as likely to become depressed as men.

Nolen-Hoeksema, considered the leading expert on women, rumination and depression, described the behavior as the mind going round-and-round over negative events that happened in the past or bad things you're worried about happening in the future. While it's normal and even productive to examine problems carefully, rumination doesn't lend to problem solving because it doesn't let the "thinker" let go of the problem and create solutions. Instead, you focus intently on the negative side of things, which tends to make the problem appear and feel worse than it really is.

Rumination can impair thinking and problem-solving and drive away critical social support, says Nolen-Hoeksema. While over-thinkers often reach out to friends or family for support, they might quickly wear them out if they're approached too many times with the same old worries. Before you know it, your social support starts to avoid you or act dismissive when you fail to "get over" your problems. That may lead to feelings of social rejection or conflict, which can fuel more rumination. Pretty soon, all that dark thinking leaves you feeling depressed.

Ruminators tend to be men and women who:

  • Believe they're gaining insight and figuring things out by over-thinking their situation.
  • Often have histories of trauma, like sexual abuse or violence.
  • Perceive their life as having long-term, uncontrollable stressors, like job discrimination or chronic disease.
  • May have personality traits that lead them toward detail-oriented, perfectionist ways of thinking.

5 Tips to Break the Rumination Cycle

If you recognize you're leaning towards rumination, psychologists suggest trying a few techniques to snap out of it:

  1. Distract yourself with a book, movie or other entertaining activity
  2. Focus on finding small, do-able action-oriented solutions
  3. Meditate or pray
  4. If it's nighttime, turn on the light
  5. Go for a walk or do some other physical activity

If you choose to talk to a friend, tell them you're shifting gears from rehashing the same old problem to finding new ways to break free. If you think you're becoming depressed, talking to a friend won't be enough to solve your problems. You may need professional help from medical and mental health experts. Talk to your doctor and find out what services are available in your area.

LeslieBeth Wish, EDD, MSS, reviewed this article.




American Psychological Association
Probing the depression-rumination cycle
Why chewing on problems just makes them harder to swallow.
November 2005, Vol 36, No. 10