Everyone ruminates. We especially ruminate when we’re stressed out. Maybe you’re ruminating about an upcoming test—you have to score an A to keep your scholarship. Maybe you’re ruminating about an upcoming presentation because you want to impress your boss. Maybe you’re ruminating about an upcoming date and the many ways it could go. Maybe you’re ruminating about a bad performance review. Maybe you’re ruminating about an injury that’s really been bothering you.
“We are evolutionarily wired to obsess,” according to psychiatrist Britton Arey, M.D. We are wired to sense threats and dangers in our environment—like lions who are waiting around the corner to consume us. “The people who didn’t ruminate about the lion were more likely to get eaten by it, and therefore, much less likely to pass along their genes, from an evolutionary standpoint.”
Today, with less lions and other predators and less looming threats, ruminating isn’t particularly helpful. But, again, it is normal—to an extent. As Arey said, normal ruminating passes after a period of time after the stress is over; is susceptible to distraction by someone or something that pulls away our attention; and doesn’t interfere with our ability to function.
And that’s the key. Because ruminating becomes problematic when it impairs our ability to function healthfully. It becomes problematic when we’re unable to maintain an optimistic mood, to connect with others, to sleep or to attain inner peace, Arey said.
Most of the patients Arey sees at South Coast Psychiatry, her private practice in Costa Mesa, Calif., struggle with ruminating. They obsess about things they can’t control and traits they despise. They fixate on fears that they’re not good enough. They ruminate about their regrets and their future. They seek help because their ruminating has affected their mood, their quality of life and their daily functioning, she said.
In fact, rumination is one of the most common symptoms of almost every disorder, Arey said. It might be part of depression, the ruminations revolving around hopelessness and negativity about yourself, your future and your world. She described it as “self-bullying” because the criticism is that intense.
It is like looking through “gray-colored glasses,” Arey said. “Everything looks dark, gray and dismal.”
The rumination might be part of post-traumatic stress disorder, focusing on past traumatic experiences. It might be part of an eating disorder, the obsessions focused on food and weight. It might be part of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the ruminations fixated on specific numbers, diseases or fears about loved ones’ health and safety.