Study Offers Clues into Rumination, Symptoms of Severe Depression

One of the most difficult and paradoxical symptoms of depression is obsessive thinking about the disease itself. Many people suffering from depression describe not only an inability to banish sad memories, but also a preoccupation with the origins and nature of disabling melancholy.

Psychologists call this rumination. People with such obsessive thinking have more frequent bouts of depression, and the episodes tend to be more severe and more long-lasting. As a result, psychologists are very interested in knowing just what is happening in the brain during depressive rumination. Why can’t severely depressed people move on to healthier, happier thoughts?

One theory is that ruminators have a particular cognitive style, a neuronal inflexibility that distorts the normal executive functioning of the brain. Two psychologists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, decided to explore this idea in the laboratory, to see if they could identify the specific deficit underlying such perseveration. Anson Whitmer and Marie Banich gave several hundred young adults a widely used test to measure their ruminative tendencies. The ones who scored high were not clinically depressed, but they did display this signature cognitive style.

Then the psychologists gave both the ruminators and those who scored very low on this trait a complicated mental test in which they were required to pay attention to certain stimuli, switch their attention elsewhere, suppress thoughts and replace them with new ones, and so forth. The idea was to sort out two ways that normal attention can malfunction. Sometimes we simply can’t shake an unwanted thought, hard as we try. At other times, we cannot switch from one way of thinking to a newer, fresher way. These sound similar, but to the brain’s executive neurons, they are distinct. The subjects were required to respond as rapidly as they could, in order to tap into these fundamental, unconscious processes.

The results, as reported in the June issue of Psychological Science, were plain. The ruminators, when compared to normal thinkers, had much more difficulty suppressing unwanted thoughts.

But Whitmer and Banich went one step further. They studied the same two cognitive processes in two other kinds of rumination, namely angry rumination and intellectual reflection. Angry rumination is, well, think of the rude guy who just cut you off in traffic—and the visceral feelings you still have, hours later. Reflection, as the word conveys, is good rumination; it’s peaceful and creative focus on an idea.

It turns out that, as different as they are emotionally, angry rumination and intellectual reflection are cognitively similar—and cognitively distinct from the distorted thinking of depression. Both involve difficulty switching to a new topic, rather than difficulty inhibiting a negative thought. In a sense, depressive rumination is an avoidance problem, while angry rumination and reflection are characterized by uncommon persistence in a way of thinking.

It’s well known that debilitating depression is caused in part by distorted thinking about the self and the world. So sorting out the precise cognitive deficits underlying different forms of rumination, the authors believe, could lead to more effective therapies for targeting this symptom.


The outcomes certainly seem to support the hypotheses and this is a very interesting topic. I do wonder, however, about the individuals without a history or symptoms of depression who find themselves ruminating beyond a reasonable period about matters that they were prevented from resolving at the time of occurrence. For example, an individual that discovers his or her spouse is having an affair and is unable to release anger in a productive manner, or a young person who is being taunted and bullied but does not possess the ability to suppress the physical altercations to which they are exposed, or lastly by example people who are witness to, or learn of, horrendous acts of terror and violence against innocent people and yet regardless of the repetitive success of these acts or terror they feel helpless to do anything about it.

I suppose my point to the comment is that even in the absence of clinical depression it is normal for people to experience events for which the time to act resolutely has passed, leaving them to constantly angrily ruminate about resolving the matter consistent with the troubling emotions. This is, in my opinion, not necessarily distorted thinking about themselves and the world, for the very fundamental reason that although we are higher functioning social animals, we are nevertheless guided to some degree by instinctual drives that affect the manner in which we feel and act.

It is because of our training in social etiquette that people can sometimes become trapped by their emotions elicited through some event and yet be unable to respond in a successful manner to feel resolute. To feel trapped by one’s own lack of resolute response to certain actions imposed upon them in one way or another can quite often produce rumination of intense anger.

In other words, it is not distorted to know that you cannot chase down and beat or kill the person who engaged in an extra-marital affair with your spouse, yet the anger conjured by such an event is perfectly reasonable. The same holds true for young persons being bullied. Lacking either the confidence and or physical ability to repel bullies, these young people exude a great deal of angry rumination that if not dealt with progress to relegation and feeling trapped. When some people see acts of unspeakable terror being committed against helpless people, it is perfectly normal to respond in outrage and anger. Furthermore, the longer these terrorist acts continue, the more ruminative these people become because it is an affront to seeking safety from harm, whether through fight or flight.

My point is that people do not have to be tagged with a diagnosis of clinical depression to experience angry rumination. True, if prolonged, depression and anxiety could certainly manifest but doesn’t any study to determine a broader context of treatment therapies in such instances also be made to strengthen determinations and identity of emotions that in some instances are quite normal. It may be putting the cart before the horse in a sense to identify depression first in people prior to examining the specific context in which the emotions are derived being used to “recognize” depression.

In the context of the study, I would presume that the authors are specifically addressing rumination that has no basis in reality. In other words, people ruminating about events that never really occurred but are manufactured by the mind in such a way that it feeds the anger. Indeed, many persons with clinical depression produce unhealthy outlets for poorly understood or misrepresented anger, alas distorted thinking about themselves and their world.

Just thoughts to share about the need to constantly increase our acumen regarding specificity regarding the identity of a disorder and its distance from similar emotions or behaviors that, regardless of their nature, can actually exist within the normal spectrum for human beings.

Very well said, John Cottle.

Hi John… as a person who suffers from severe rumination I believe you’r missing the point of the article and study. You’re absolutely correct when you write it’s normal for people to ruminate about traumatic experiences as they perceive them… but that’s not what the study was about.

I have never had depression or suffered from any form of sadness or unhappiness. I am an educated man with a successful career. For some reason, around the age of 40, what I would call normal rumination, began to become excessive. At first, I didn’t even realize I was ruminating as I had never thought about it… I was having problems sleeping and started to seek treatment for insomnia.

What we (myself and multiple doctors from multiple disciplines) eventually discovered was my obsessive rumination was actually the cause of my insomnia – not the other way around. My rumination is very random… about an incident when I was 6 years old that may or may not be accurate, about something that happened today, about something I’m anticipating in the future, etc. Sometimes regarding good thoughts… but mostly negative and mostly painting myself in a bad light.

I’ve taken every medication known thus far and after 15 years I’m reduced to sleeping a few hours a week, chronic insomnia, and a crippled mind. I still work, I still interact with family and friends, albeit on a limited basis, and I still function, but I am also a miserable person on the inside. I’ve gone from a 39yr old fit, triathlete, who looked 29, to a 50+ rundown man that looks 70!

I am living proof of exactly what this study is referring to… there are people out there whose minds cannot let things go for whatever reason and the more science understands what causes this – the more hope I have of ending this nightmare I live in before I die.

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