Rumination: not to be confused with the action of a cud-chewing cow, can broadly be defined as chronic repeated patterns of negative thinking. And these thought patterns can have a dramatic impact on our mental well-being. If you’re someone who finds themselves stuck in a loop of persistent negative thoughts, welcome to the world of rumination. In this article, we’ll dive into the realm of ruminations, their impact on the nervous system, and provide strategies to help you regain control over your thoughts.

What are Ruminating Thoughts?

Think of them as a broken record playing the same tune repeatedly. Ruminating thoughts are those persistent, often negative, and distressing thoughts that keep replaying in your mind, leaving you feeling trapped and overwhelmed.

What Causes Ruminating Thoughts?

Ruminations often stem from our natural tendency to problem-solve and make sense of things. However, when left unchecked, this tendency can escalate into a never-ending cycle of overthinking. Stressful events, unresolved issues, childhood trauma, and a predisposition to anxiety can all contribute to obsessive rumination.[*]

Am I Ruminating? Signs and Symptoms

Determining whether you’re caught in the rumination web requires a keen eye on your thought patterns. Here are some signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Repetitive Thoughts: Ruminators often find themselves fixated on the same issue, replaying it in their minds, over, and over..
  • Inability to Let Go: These thoughts grip you tightly, making it hard to shift your focus away from them, even when you want to.
  • Negative Bias: Ruminating thoughts tend to lean toward the negative, dwelling on mistakes, regrets, and worries.
  • Physical Symptoms: The emotional turmoil of rumination can manifest physically as well – think tense muscles, headaches, and even digestive disturbances.
  • Sleep Disturbances: The constant mental chatter can disrupt your sleep, leaving you fatigued and drained.[*]
  • Reduced Concentration: Ruminating thoughts steal your attention, making it challenging to concentrate on tasks at hand.
  • Increased Stress: The loop of negative thoughts triggers the stress response, leaving you in a constant state of anxiety and even depression.[*]

Is It Possible To Have An Obsessive Rumination Disorder?

If you’re finding that you habitually loop negative thoughts, you may be asking yourself ‘Do I have an obsessive rumination disorder?’ While this isn’t a clinically recognized diagnosis in itself, chronic rumination is a common symptom of many brain-related conditions. These obsessive thought spirals show up in a broad spectrum of disorders, ranging from nervous system dysregulation to ADHD.

The record skipping in your head doesn’t mean you have an obsessive rumination disorder, but the symptom may signify another condition. Let’s look at some examples.

Ruminations and The Nervous System

Our nervous system is like a choreographed dance between two partners – the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) responses. When we ruminate, the sympathetic response takes center stage, flooding our body with stress hormones. For example, ruminating inwardly about why you are angry is likely to keep you stuck in a loop of perpetual distress. This constant state of tension can lead to a dysregulated nervous system and some of its by-products, such as anxiety and depression. This might look like an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, muscle tension, and digestive disruptions – it’s a party we definitely didn’t RSVP for.[*]

OCD and rumination

Symptoms of OCD vary vastly between individuals.[*] This psychiatric condition is, however, typically characterized by persistent, obsessive and repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing associated anxiety and distress. 

One study suggests that rumination as a form of self-protection may explain the cognitive processes at play in OCD. However research is still limited.[*]

Rumination Vs Obsession

While rumination and obsessive behaviors are similar in nature, rumination is typically a response to distress and trauma via repetitive thinking. Obsessions however, are intrusive and unwelcome behaviors. With OCD, rumination may significantly exacerbate the obsessional symptoms.[*

ADHD and Rumination: What’s the Connection?

ADHD often involves a merry-go-round of revolving thoughts. The nervous system plays a crucial role here. Individuals with ADHD can face challenges in regulating attention, emotions, and impulses, whilst displaying cognitive inflexibility, contributing to both rumination and nervous system hyperactivity. In ADHD, impaired executive functioning means the brain struggles to maintain focus, triggering mental restlessness. This heightened nervous system activity can lead to rumination spirals.[*]  Modalities like mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy and the Safe and Sound Protocol may be valuable tools in easing rumination patterns in those with ADHD.

Autism and Rumination: Does the Nervous System Play a Role?

Autism, much like a complex puzzle, brings unique challenges. Anger rumination can be a piece of this puzzle, often linked to heightened sensory experiences and difficulties in emotional regulation.[*] In autism, the nervous system may process sensory input differently, leading to overwhelm and increased rumination. Therapeutic interventions such as the Safe and Sound Protocol may be valuable in reducing sensitivities and improving audio processing in individuals with autism, helping establish social connection and gently moving the nervous system towards a more balanced state.

What’s the Difference Between Rumination and Intrusive Thoughts?

While obsessive rumination and intrusive thoughts may seem like close cousins, there is a distinct difference between rumination and intrusive thoughts:


Ruminations involve replaying the same thoughts, often related to past events, decisions, or problems. These thoughts are typically negative and can lead to self-criticism and self-doubt. Ruminators dwell on what has happened or what they could have done differently, causing emotional distress, amplifying stress, and further dysregulating the nervous system. These thoughts are persistent and can interfere with daily life.

Intrusive Thoughts:

Intrusive thoughts, on the other hand, are like an unwanted guest at a party. They show up totally unannounced. They can include intrusive mental images, ideas, or impulses that pop into your mind without your control. They can be bizarre, distressing, or even violent in nature. Unlike ruminations, these thoughts are often not related to your personal experiences or concerns. While they can be unsettling, they don’t necessarily reflect your true desires or intentions. Like bopping Aunt Cybil over the head with a skillet.

Addressing Ruminating Thoughts to Calm a Dysregulated Nervous System

The relationship between chronic rumination and the nervous system is a tangled web. Ruminating thoughts perpetuate the sympathetic nervous system’s dominance, leaving us in a constant state of stress. However, addressing these thoughts head-on can help bring harmony to this chaotic dance. By breaking free from rumination, the parasympathetic nervous system can sit back and do its thing, bringing the body back to a state of rest and digest. When we enter a parasympathetic state we can promote relaxation and reduce the toxic effects of stress hormones on our well-being.

Medication for Ruminating Thoughts: Is It Necessary?

The age-old question: to medicate or meditate? While medication for ruminating thoughts may help some, it’s not always the silver bullet. Many conditions involving obsessive rumination, like anxiety and depression, show improvements when we address underlying nervous system dysregulation. Brain retraining programs like the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) and nervous system regulating practices, like those found in The Nervous System Solution offer an alternative approach, helping rewire our brains and bodies response to stressors.

Top 13 Tips to Help You Stop Ruminating

Want to know how to stop ruminating at night? How to quit ruminating over personal and work-related problems? How to end break-up rumination hell? These tips are a great starting point.

  • Acknowledge It: Ask yourself – “Am I ruminating right now?” Recognize you’re caught in a loop. Awareness is always the first step towards change.
  • Set a Timer: Allocate specific time to think about the issue. When the timer rings, move on. Tip: don’t set the timer for 24 hours. That’s counterproductive.
  • Change Your Scenery: Shifting your physical environment can lead to mental shifts. Take regular screen breaks, take the dog out or head to the beach.
  • Engage Your Senses: Ground yourself through touch, taste, or soothing music.
  • Mindful Breathing: Breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four – a mini-vacation for your nervous system.
  • Practice Gratitude: Balance negativity by reminding yourself of positive aspects.
  • Talk It Out: Sharing thoughts with trusted individuals provides relief.
  • Limit News Intake: Balance being informed with knowing when to step back. Nothing good ever came from a Fox news binge.
  • Engage in Healthy Activities: Hobbies and exercise divert your mind, giving your nervous system a break. Pick up a craft, pickle some veggies, or take up interpretive dance.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Train your brain to stay present and become the observer of your mind – reducing rumination’s power.
  • Seek Professional Help: If ruminations severely impact you, consulting a professional is wise.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself – you’re not your thoughts.
  • Keep a Journal: Note down your ruminations as and when you catch them. You may be surprised by the patterns that appear.

Need some more help putting things into practice? Download our ruminating thoughts worksheet to help track your thought patterns.

Chronic rumination can be a tough habit to break – but it can be broken. Obsessive rumination can manifest in relation to a multitude of conditions, including nervous system dysregulation. Incorporating some of these exercises into your daily routine can have a profound effect on regulating your nervous system. And don’t forget, if you need extra guidance, you can download our FREE ruminating thoughts worksheet.

Underlying disorders such as autism and ADHD may require a more holistic approach to manage.  However, in certain instances these practices may still be beneficial.

Equipped with an understanding of their impact on the nervous system and armed with strategies, you can steer your mental ship toward calmer waters. Your brain might be the captain, but you’re the navigator.


  • Emma Clark, BA (Hons) - Author

    Emma Clark holds a BA (Hons). She cut her marketing teeth in the health and dieting niche before co-founding Regulate Co. She has an unhealthy obsession with Bon Jovi, aspires to own 1000 guinea pigs, and feels best in the sunshine with an ice cream in hand.

  • Alice Brown, MSc - Scientific Reviewer

    Alice Brown is a researcher in cognitive neuroscience and psychology. She holds a masters in clinical and developmental neuropsychology and is currently undertaking a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and psychology. She likes dinosaurs, re-painting the walls of her house, and terrifying small children at Halloween with unnecessarily distressing decorations.


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