Is There A Relationship Between Depression And Rumination?

Does depression have something to do with the tendency to turn the same thought?

The relationship between depression and rumination

Is there a relationship between depression and psychological rumination (the tendency to have recurring thoughts that we cannot get out of our head)? Various studies have tried to reveal the answer to this question. In this article we bring you a theory that explains in detail the relationship between depression and a ruminative style, the theory of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.

In addition, we go to a review that analyzes the conclusions of 59 functional neuroimaging studies, and we specify the results they reached on this issue.

Relationship between depression and rumination: the Nolen-Hoeksema theory

If we investigate within the group of explanatory theories of depression, we find one of them that establishes a relationship between depression and rumination. This is the theory of response styles, proposed by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema (1959 – 2013) in 1991. Nolen-Hoeksema was an American professor of psychology at Yale University (United States).

Specifically, what Nolen-Hoeksema says in his theory of response styles is that there are certain factors that determine the course of depression; These factors have to do with the way in which the subject responds to the first symptoms of depression. This response, also called “ruminative style,” influences how long the depression lasts and how severe it is.

Thus, specifying even more, the author explains that a ruminative response style in depression maintains or exacerbates its symptoms.

In other words, according to this author, the relationship between depression and rumination is the following: rumination of depressive symptoms makes depression chronic, in addition to exacerbating its symptoms on certain occasions. The opposite occurs with an active style based on distraction or problem solving.

Rumiative response style

But what is a ruminant response style? It consists of the mental process of focusing our attention to the symptoms of the disorder and their implications in our person, without doing anything to alleviate these symptoms.

That is to say, it is a process from which coping strategies are not implemented; In simpler words, it is about “turning around” things, without stopping thinking about them, worrying about them, without taking care of them or doing anything to change them. It would be like “going into a loop.”

On the other hand, the author of the theory that postulates a relationship between depression and rumination, attributes the origin of the ruminant style to childhood learning by modeling (through models, for example parents, who also manifest a ruminant style) , added to socialization practices that do not provide the person with a repertoire of more adaptive behaviors, necessary to cope with depression. Thus, these two factors would explain the origin of the ruminant style.

How does rumination influence depression?

S. Nolen-Hoeksema goes further with his theory to understand the relationship between depression and rumination, and proposes a series of mechanisms that would explain the negative effects of the ruminant style in depression. What are these mechanisms? It involves four:

1. Vicious circles

The first mechanism that explains why a ruminative style in depression has negative effects for the person has to do with vicious cycles, which occur between depressed mood and negative cognitions.

Thus, we enter “in a loop” in the following way: our mood is depressed, which affects our thinking with more negative cognitions; in turn, these cognitions increase depressed mood (and both elements feed back).

2. Failure to generate effective solutions

On the other hand, another of the mechanisms that explains the relationship between depression and rumination is the decrease in effective solutions to day-to-day problems.

That is, we generate less effective solutions to problems (or even none), since instead of thinking about these solutions, we turn to the problems (ruminative style).

3. Interference

The fourth of the mechanisms that allows us to understand the relationship between depression and rumination is the interference that occurs with instrumental behaviors that would provide us with positive reinforcement, as well as a sense of control.

In other words, the ruminative style hinders the appearance of these behaviors (or interferes with their functioning), in addition to preventing the feeling of control necessary in depressive disorders and that would allow us to advance within the disorder.

4. Weakening of social support

Finally, there is a weakening of social support, which translates into rejection by others, or even criticism of oneself.

This is logical to understand since, when our interpretation of reality and our coping mechanism before life are based on a constant ruminative style, in the end the people around us get tired of these behaviors and move away, because they see that they are not we do nothing to deal with depression (or seek help, or make things down or give them the importance they deserve, or recognize that we have a problem …).

Research and results

Following Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s theory, which bets on a relationship between depression and rumination, a series of experimental studies on ruminant responses were carried out. The results of the same were the following.

1. Type of attributions

People with a ruminative style make a greater number of negative and global attributions to everything that happens to them (that is, causal attributions).

2. Accessibility to memories

The accessibility to negative memories in this type of people is greater than in people without a ruminative style.

3. Pessimism

There is pessimism and a biased negative interpretation of reality in people with a ruminative style in the context of depression.

4. Poor interpersonal solutions

Finally, these people generate poorer interpersonal solutions, which are less effective (for example, in a conflict with another person).

Scientific Review: What Does Neuroscience Say?

Beyond the ruminant style theory of S. Nolen-Hoeksema, to understand a little more the relationship between depression and rumination, we have gone to a scientific review carried out in 2016 by Rayner, Jackson and Wilson, which analyzes the findings of up to 59 functional neuroimaging studies in adults with unipolar depression.

This review also analyzes the relationship between the brain networks involved in cognitive processes during a depressive disorder and the symptoms of the disorder. Specifically, it analyzes the relationship between the abnormal functioning of these brain structures and depressive symptoms.


The results of this review indicate that there are two different neurocognitive networks, which can largely explain the symptoms of depression. These two networks are: the autobiographical memory network (AMN), and the cognitive control network (CCN).

Specifically, what was found through this review is that the hyperactivity of the first network, the autobiographical memory network, is related to three types of symptoms in depressive patients : rumination, self-blame and pathological upbringing of patients. sons.

On the other hand, it was found that the hypoactivation or abnormal functioning of the other network, the cognitive control network, is related to the following symptoms in this type of patient: negative automatic thoughts (the famous “PAN’s” by Aaron Beck), cognitive distortions and low concentration.

In addition, it should be noted that the configuration of these networks can change over time in people ; this is also related to a variation in depressive symptoms over time (ie, with a fluctuating course of depression).

Neurocognitive networks and depression

According to this review, we can say that depression, in addition to being a multifactorial disorder, where biological, social and psychological factors intervene … it could also be framed as a disorder of neurocognitive networks, which links neurobiology with psychiatric practice.

This can be of great help for researchers, doctors, psychologists, etc., and open a path from the perspective of neuroscience, which helps us understand and treat this and more mental disorders in the future.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association -APA- (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Madrid: Panamericana.
  • Belloch, A., Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of Psychopathology. Volume I and II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
  • García Cruz, R, Valencia Ortiz, AI, Hernández-Martínez, A. and Rocha Sánchez, TE (2017). Rumiative thinking and depression among university students: rethinking the impact of gender. Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 51 (3): 406-416.
  • Rayner, G., Jackson, G. & Wilson, S. (2016). Cognition-related brain networks underpin the symptoms of unipolar depression: Evidence from a systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 61: 53-65.

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