by Allison Aboud Holzer

My high school Latin teacher, Mr. Aylor, used to pride himself on telling puns and witty jokes to make sindercudlearning Latin fun. I remember his favorite: “I once had a pupil named Iris. Day after day in class she kept winking at me! Finally, I said to her, Iris, put a lid on it!” Mr. Aylor also loved to tell us about unusual Latin roots to modern words. For example, the origin of the word “rumination” comes from the Latin word ruminare, which literally refers to the act of cows chewing their cud. While modern use of the word rumination can still sometimes refer to chewing food, in most cases the term is used to describe excessive worrying.

This cud chewing metaphor turns out to be quite appropriate in terms of how most people experience the act of worrying. While fear and anxiety about an upcoming event do not necessarily lead to rumination, they might. Essentially, rumination starts with a basic fear or worry, in the form of a negative thought that our minds chew on over and over and over again until the thought becomes all consuming. It sounds like a big downer, right? And yet people ruminate because they think the act of worrying will actually be productive.

As Van Wilder (movie) says, “worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.”

Not only is ruminating unproductive, but it actually diminishes well-being by increasing stress and negative emotions. There is some evidence that the tendency to ruminate is hereditary. One of the Big Five personality traits, neuroticism, is a genetically inherited trait that correlates with high rumination and lower levels of happiness, positive emotions, and well-being.

But, here’s the good news for worry-prone people: while genetics are powerful, they only account for about 50% of our tendency to ruminate. There’s some wiggle room to spit out the grass and move on to greener pastures!

Turning off the rumination switch, however, requires mental self-discipline and willpower – the same kind we use to remember to brush our teeth every night and stick to a new healthy food or exercise regimen.

Reducing rumination requires building a new kind of mental muscle. It gets stronger by practicing the act of letting worry go with the same consistency, dedication, and perseverance applied to lifting weights, swimming, or jogging. And fortunately, like working out, this sort of exercise is more difficult at first, gets easier over time, and eventually becomes a routine that is easily missed.

  • Lyubomirsky S, Nolen-Hoeksema S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and interpersonal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1),176-90.
  • Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504-511.
  • Papageorgiou, C., & Wells, A. (2004). Depressive rumination: nature, theory and treatment.