Rumination: How Mindfulness Helps
Rumination is a pattern of repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts or worries that can occur in response to a stressful or upsetting event. When someone is ruminating, there are several physiological and psychological changes that can occur in the mind and body.
From a psychological perspective, rumination involves a lot of self-focused attention and negative self-talk. This can activate the body's stress response, leading to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and a decrease in positive emotions.
Physiologically, rumination can also lead to changes in brain activity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that rumination is associated with increased activity in the brain's default mode network, which is responsible for self-referential thinking and mind wandering. This increased activity in the default mode network can lead to decreased activity in other brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning and decision-making.
Rumination can be a maladaptive stress response and negatively impact the mind and body. Recognizing and addressing rumination is essential to promote mental and physical well-being.
Rumination and the Default Mode Network
The default mode network (DMN) is a network of brain regions active when an individual is at rest or engaged in self-referential thinking, such as remembering past events or contemplating the future. The DMN has been implicated in several mental health conditions, including rumination.
Research has found that rumination is associated with increased activity in the DMN. When individuals ruminate, they tend to focus on themselves and their own thoughts, which activates the DMN. This increased activity in the DMN can lead to decreased activity in other brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is essential for executive functioning and decision-making. This shift in brain activity can make it more difficult for individuals to regulate their emotions and break out of negative thought patterns (6).
The relationship between rumination and DMN has been demonstrated in several neuroimaging studies. For example, one study by Hamilton et al. (2011) found that individuals with a history of depression had increased activity in the DMN during a task that involved recalling negative self-referential information (7). Another study by Berman et al. (2011) found that individuals instructed to ruminate had increased activity in the DMN compared to those instructed to focus on an external task (8).
The DMN plays a crucial role
in rumination, as it is activated when individuals engage in self-referential thinking and focus on their own thoughts and feelings. This increased activity in the DMN can lead to decreased activity in other brain regions, making it more difficult for individuals to regulate their emotions and break out of negative thought patterns.
How Does Mindfulness Help?
Mindfulness is practicing paying attention to the present moment with curious and kind awareness. It is an effective way to reduce rumination and its adverse effects on the mind and body. Here are some mechanisms of how mindfulness helps:
Increases activity in the prefrontal cortex: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning, attention, and decision-making. This can help individuals regulate their emotions and reduce rumination (1).
Reduces activity in the default mode network: As mentioned earlier, rumination is associated with increased activity in the default mode network. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease activity in this network, leading to reduced rumination and an increase in cognitive flexibility (2).
Enhances emotion regulation: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to enhance emotion regulation by increasing activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates emotional responses (3).
Reduces cortisol levels: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, which can decrease the negative impacts of stress on the body (4).
One study by Hölzel et al. (2011) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation. The study found that mindfulness meditation increased prefrontal cortex activity and decreased default mode network activity. Additionally, the study found that individuals who practice mindfulness had greater gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (5).
Another study by Creswell et al. (2015) found that mindfulness meditation reduced cortisol levels and decreased the adverse effects of stress on the body (4).
Mindfulness can effectively reduce rumination and its negative impacts on the mind and body. The brain science behind mindfulness suggests it can enhance brain regions responsible for executive functioning, attention, and emotion regulation and reduce activity in the default mode network associated with rumination.
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225.
Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y. Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254-20259.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
Creswell, J. D., Pacilio, L. E., Lindsay, E. K., & Brown, K. W. (2015). Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 51, 10-19.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.
Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Ford, J. M. (2012). Default mode network activity and connectivity in psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 8, 49-76.
Hamilton, J. P., Furman, D. J., Chang, C., Thomason, M. E., Dennis, E., & Gotlib, I. H. (2011). Default-mode and task-positive network activity in major depressive disorder: implications for adaptive and maladaptive rumination. Biological Psychiatry, 70(4), 327-333.
Berman, M. G., Peltier, S., Nee, D. E., & Jonides, J. (2011). Reading fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6(2), 215-224.