Mindfulness meditation stops rumination, a danger to mental health

Into the Light

There is a theory that it isn’t only what happens to us but equally how we choose to think about it, that determines our mental wellbeing; now the largest study of its kind from BBC’s Lab UK and psychologists at the University of Liverpool, appears to prove it. The research finds that “traumatic life events are the biggest cause of anxiety and depression, but how a person thinks about these events determines the level of stress they experience.”[1]

Rumination brings people down

The single biggest predictor of depression and anxiety is traumatic life events, such as abuse. This is followed by family history, income and education, and to a lesser extent relationship status and social inclusion. But these only lead to mental health issues when people keep dwelling on them or blame themselves for the problem. Rumination refers to continuously focussing on negative events, feelings, their causes and consequences, and it is identified by the study to be as important as the events themselves in predicting anxiety and depression. Self-blame is a second factor.

Previous studies have also linked rumination to depressive symptoms.[2] One such study, Wilkinson et al 2013 that looked specifically at teenagers, says: “High rumination predicts onset of depressive disorder in healthy adolescents. Therapy that reduces rumination and increases distraction/problem-solving may reduce onset and relapse rates of depression.”


Events and circumstances don’t have to determine our mental health

It comes as great news that thinking style is equally important as life events, to our mental health.

It means our mental health is not subject to what happens to us, that once something traumatic happens or whichever unwanted circumstances we find ourselves in, we are not doomed to have a greater probability of experiencing depression and anxiety. It offers hope that we can overcome the negative effect of such events by directing how we think about and relate to them.


Mindfulness meditation helps stop rumination

There are many ways to stop the repetitive cycle of negative thoughts. One can talk about problems with others to understand them and move on (healthy self-disclosure), proactively engage in positive thinking, or even distract themselves with other activities, which has been shown in some research to help stop rumination. Psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy are also used at times. However the problem usually occurs when people don’t even realise they are ruminating, and it becomes a habit on auto-pilot. It is at this point that mindfulness meditation proves useful; it helps people catch themselves dwelling on the same negative thoughts at any given moment, observe them without judgement, and then helps let go of them.

It is generally agreed through research findings that mindfulness meditation helps reduce rumination. This is one of the reasons it was developed into therapies to fight depression, such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, both of which are increasingly available through national health institutions. Brown & Ryan 2003 looked at how mindfulness affects psychological wellbeing by looking at a large number of factors, such as clarity, attention, self-consciousness, or rumination; it found that mindfulness negatively correlated with rumination[3]. Wilkinson, P. 2012, also found that “trait mindfulness and rumination were negatively related to each other”.[4] Williams & Kuyken 2012, summarise how mindfulness achieves this:

“That is, repeated practice in noticing, observing with curiosity and compassion, and shifting perspective helps participants to realise that their thoughts, emotions and sensations are just thoughts, emotions and sensations, rather than ‘truth’ or ‘me’. They learn to see more clearly the patterns of the mind, and to recognise when mood is beginning to dip without adding to the problem by falling into analysis and rumination – to stand on the edge of the whirlpool and watch it go round, rather than disappearing into it.”

Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to develop a sustained, relaxed attention with purpose, compassion and non-judgement, to the present moment. It encourages observing everything that goes on in the mind “without judging, reacting, or holding on”. On the one hand it seems contradictory that observing repetitive thinking without judgement can help stop it; but someone practicing mindfulness meditation has to observe everything openly without becoming attached to them or getting drawn into them..instead of joining the cycle, the observer’s attention slowly dissipates the cycle and the attention is brought back to the present moment and one point of focus, usually the breath.

Through continuous practice, mindfulness meditation helps people draw themselves out of rumination and live more healthily in the present moment. The observance of negative thoughts, unlike with distraction, may cause discomfort initially, but with continued open observance the relationship to these thoughts change, and one develops the capability to separate themselves from their thoughts, thereby extracting themselves from the pain that goes with them.

[2] Wilkinson et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:250, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-244X/13/250;  Rood L, Roelofs J, Bogels SM, Nolen-Hoeksema S, Schouten E: The influence of emotion-focused rumination and distraction on depressive symptoms

in non-clinical youth: a meta-analytic review. Clin Psychol Rev 2009, 29(7):607–616.

[3] Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848. 

[4] Same as footnote 2

2 Comments on “Mindfulness meditation stops rumination, a danger to mental health

  1. ‘meditation stops rumination’ – absolutely – I noticed this when I was meditating – observing the celluloid film loop frame endless chain of thoughts – each thought triggering/pulling the next memory association onto the screen of the mind – so we spend our whole time not seeing reality and the world around us, but just our imagination/projection of our own thoughts

    once you meditate to drop this endless repetition/resentment/rethinking – you can simply see the world as it is – an amazing glorious brilliant place full of incredible life – once you realise that, it won’t occur to you to complain about the latest tiny little thing that isn’t how you might like – you’ll just be – what a wonderful world – and appreciate everything !

    • Hi Frank..thanks for the comments!
      You make it sound easy! I have to say I find it pretty difficult to do…but like with all things..it’s a matter of showing up to practice…and you start seeing the changes, very very slowly :)

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