Is there a 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 attempted to reveal the answer to this question. In this article we bring you a theory that explains in detail what relationship exists between depression and a ruminant style, the Susan Nolen-Hoeksema theory.

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

  • Related article: ” Types of depression: their symptoms, causes and characteristics

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 “rumination style”, influences how long the depression lasts and how serious it is.

Thus, concretizing even more, the author explains that a ruminant response style in depression maintains or exacerbates the symptoms of it.

That is, according to this author, the relationship between depression and rumination is as follows: the rumination of depressive symptoms chronifies depression, in addition to exacerbating its symptoms on certain occasions . The opposite occurs with an active style based on distraction or problem solving.

Ruminant Response Style

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

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

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 a child 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 deal with depression. Thus, these two factors would explain the origin of the ruminant style.

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How does rumination influence depression?

  1. 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 rumination style on depression. What are these mechanisms? It’s about four:

1. Vicious circles

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

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

2. No generation of effective solutions

On the other hand, another mechanism that explains the relationship between depression and rumination is the reduction of 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 problems (ruminant style) .

3. Interference

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

That is to say, the ruminant style hinders the appearance of these behaviors (or interferes with their functioning), in addition to preventing the feeling of necessary control 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 mechanism of coping with life are based on a constant ruminant style, in the end the people around us get tired of these behaviors and move away, because they see that they do not We do nothing to deal with depression (or seek help, or relativize things or give them the importance they deserve, or recognize that we have a problem …).

Research and results

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

1. Type of attributions

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

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2. Accessibility to memories

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

3. Pessimism

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

4. Poor interpersonal solutions

Finally, these people generate poorer interpersonal solutions, making them less effective (for example in the face of a conflict with another person).

Scientific review: what do neurosciences say?

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

This review also analyzes the relationship between brain networks involved in cognitive processes during a depressive disorder and the symptoms of the disorder. Specifically, analyze what relationship exists 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, autoculpa and pathological rearing 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 patients: automatic negative thoughts (the famous “PAN’s” of Aaron Beck), Cognitive distortions and low concentration.

In addition, it should be noted that the configuration of these networks can be modified over time in people ; This is also related to a variation in depressive symptoms over time (that is, 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, involving biological, social, psychological factors … could also be framed as a disorder of neurocognitive networks, which makes neurobiology link with psychiatric practice.

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


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