On the Differences Between Reflection & Rumination – & Getting Unstuck

July 2, 2019

On the Differences Between Reflection & Rumination – & Getting Unstuck

Have you ever found yourself replaying a scenario over and over in your head?

You may even know it is unhelpful, unproductive & upsetting, but you seem to be stuck in a play-back loop.

This is probably rumination. Susan Nolan-Hoeksema (one of the pre-eminent researchers in the area) describes it as the persistent, repetitive & passive focus on the causes & outcomes of a negative event. It can prolong depression & lead to ineffective outcomes. Most of us can recall a time when we have been too “in our heads” or been caught in over-thinking; analysis-paralysis.On the Differences Between Reflection & Rumination – & Getting Unstuck

But, isn’t it also important to learn from the past? Understand what contributed to an unwanted outcome & not repeat past mistakes? Absolutely. Reflection is an essential part of learning, skills development and growth. Reflection is very different to rumination. While subtle, this distinction is powerful. Along with perpetuating a distressed mood, rumination will interfere with innovative problem-solving, goal-directed behaviour & other things related to living one’s most effective life.

Rumination vs Reflection Checklist: Ask Yourself the Following 5 Questions

  1. How do I feel?

Reflection will tend have a quality of engagement associated with it. It is fresh & likely to leave you feeling energised & optimistic about new possibilities.

Rumination feels dull, depressing, and can be tinged with resentment & despair. It is stagnant & likely to leave you feeling hopeless & apathetic.

  1. Is this new or old?

Is this the first time you have analysed this situation? Can you apply previous insights in a new & innovative way? Then keep on reflecting.

Conversely, is this another cycle of an old theme, a repeated scenario with the same outcome? Have you already extracted all relevant meaning from it? This is more likely to be rumination.

(An aside: there may be an exception in the context of bereavement, where reliving aspects of a relationship has been considered a healthy part of grieving. However, recent research has questioned this. An article by Stroebe & Schut provides a good summary here).

  1. Do I have control?

Can you do anything about this? Reflective analysis is effective when you can take action, when there is something in this scenario that is within your control (and I highly recommend acting on it now, rather than just thinking about it).

If there is absolutely nothing you can do, if the control rests in the hands of fate or another person’s decision. Replaying this scenario serves no purpose beyond self-torture. This is rumination.

  1. Who has the power?

Does the resolution depend on another person acknowledging their wrongdoing, taking responsibility, apologizing, admitting you were right, finally hearing you, validating your perspective? These outcomes are all very gratifying…albeit wishful thinking (aka Rumination).

  1. Am I yearning for closure?

Remember the “Enough, now” moment from Love Actually, where Mark finally lets go of his unrequited yearning for Juliet? ‘Closure’ is often an illusion, and you are again giving too much power to fate, circumstance, or other people. I recommend (quietly) singing “Let it Go” instead.

So, if you have arrived at the rumination station (lets all take a moment to appreciate that rhyme), what can you do?

Remember the futility of rumination & disentangle yourself from the thought process. You may find that the Cognitive Defusion strategies in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are effective here (just Google ‘cognitive defusion’).

Get present. I am going to predict that the person/situation you are ruminating about is probably not with you right now.  So re-orient your attention to things that are, away from the scenario inside your head. Mindfulness & grounding exercises are useful.

  • Focus on… the work you are actually supposed to be doing, sensory things (the feeling of your body in the chair, all the things you can see that are blue, sounds that you can hear, etc).
  • Do something. If you can’t address one aspect of the situation, do something else active. Make a cup of coffee, go check the mail, visit the copier, take the rubbish out. This is about shifting attention from internal-imaginary-passive to external-present-active.

When the lights are out…

Rumination is highly skilled at appearing when you are trying to go to sleep. This is definitely a time when there is NOTHING you can do to address the situation & rumination is incompatible with restfulness. The above-attentional strategies may be impractical if you need to stay in bed.

Cognitive Distraction. Give your thinking mind an intermediate task to do, to help it transition from over-thinking to restfulness. The task needs to require a degree of focus, but also be a bit dull & not related to the topic of rumination. You could try:

  • Subtracting from 300 to 1 in lots of 3 (300… 297… 294, etc). If you are very good at this, try subtracting by 3.24. If you lose your place, go back to the beginning.
  • If numbers don’t work (or you are a maths ninja and can do it too easily), work with the alphabet, from Z back to A, think of a city/country starting with that letter (you get a free pass for ‘X’). Or you could list plants, movies – anything that is relatively neutral & non-triggering (so don’t use plants if you are a very stressed horticulturalist).

Remember: It is normal to get caught up in ruminative cycles however if this really plagues you, interferes with important things in your life, or the above self-help strategies just don’t work, you may find psychotherapy very helpful.


Bio: Dr. Angela Morgan is a clinical psychologist who operates her own private practice in Brisbane, Australia. She is an AHPRA- approved clinical supervisor and has previously been a lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, in the undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Angela enjoys working with adolescents and adults across a range of issues, with a particular interest in eating disorders and eating-related concerns. She is also an engaging presenter, and has provided professional development training for psychologists and other Allied Health Practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.

Find out more about Angela at www.drmorgan.com.au

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