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How Ruminating Thoughts Affect Teens

Teens who struggle with repetitive thinking may be experiencing ruminating thoughts. But what exactly does that mean, how are those thoughts connected to mental health issues, and how can parents help teenagers overcome rumination if it’s become an issue?  

To explore this topic, we spoke to Jennifer Cooper, a licensed professional counselor and clinical director at First Light Wilderness Therapy

What Is Rumination?  

Teenagers have repetitive thoughts throughout the day, but this is often relatively harmless. If your teen starts thinking obsessively about these thoughts, they’re experiencing rumination. When this kind of cyclical thinking involves negative or intrusive thoughts, it can create stress and anxiety for your child and affect their school, job, or personal life. 

It’s important to note that while ruminating thoughts and intrusive thoughts are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), they’re not the same thing. With ruminating thoughts, your teen is obsessively thinking about their thoughts over and over again. With intrusive thoughts, they’re dealing with unwanted, often disturbing thoughts that pop up on their own. That said, your teen may end up ruminating about their intrusive thoughts.  

Examples of Rumination  

“Examples of rumination in teens can be broad,” Cooper said. “Adolescents are in the identity formation stage of development and potentially more vulnerable to second guessing their thoughts, feelings, and actions at times as they come into their authentic selves.” 

Here are a few ways your teen might ruminate. 

1. Going over scenarios repeatedly in their head 

Your teenager might have said something in class or at a friend’s party that led to a perceived slight from their peers. They may then get “stuck” in this scenario — going over and over the event — and wonder how they could have done something differently or created a different outcome. 

2. Excessive worrying about past or future events 

This kind of worry is often associated with stress and trauma, according to Cooper.  

“Your teen might be in a challenging class and receive a test grade that was not up to where they want to be and then have a continuous fear that that will happen again,” Cooper said. “Or, they might feel rejected socially by peers and think, ‘If I’m rejected there, then I’ll continue to be rejected.’ They’ll obsess over it and get stuck in a negative thought cycle and belief about themselves.” 

3. Repeatedly thinking about how to solve a problem 

Problem solving has its place, especially in the hectic days of middle school and high school, but it can become an issue.  

“There’s some amount of rumination that can be normalized in this stage of adolescent development because teens want to get things right or want to be successful,” Cooper said. “As therapists, we look at how it’s affecting their functioning or if the teen is ruminating out of some negative belief about themself.”  

Are Rumination and OCD the Same Thing?  

While it might seem like rumination and OCD are the same condition, they’re not. Ruminating thoughts are a symptom of OCD, which also involves repetitive behaviors (i.e., compulsions) that disrupt a teen’s everyday life.  

For example, a teen with OCD who has ruminating thoughts about the dangers of germs might then wash their hands over and over throughout the day to the point where their skin gets chapped or even bleeds.  

The Causes of Rumination

Teen struggling with ruminating thoughts wonders if mental health issues are the cause of her cyclical thinking.
Teen struggling with ruminating thoughts wonders if mental health issues are the cause of her cyclical thinking 

From stress to depression, there are multiple mental health issues or situations that cause rumination or may make your teenager more susceptible to ruminating thoughts.  

OCD

OCD typically begins in adolescence or young adulthood and affects as many as 1 in 200 children and teens, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. As mentioned earlier, rumination is one of the main symptoms of OCD. 

Anxiety

Recent research in the peer-reviewed World Psychiatry journal found that anxiety and rumination are connected, as repetitive negative thinking is associated with anxiety disorders. 

Depression 

A report in the BMC Psychiatry journal noted a strong link between rumination and depression. It specifically pointed out brooding rumination, describing it as a passive way to compare current circumstances with more desirable, unattainable standards.   

PTSD  

Multiple studies, including recent research in the Frontiers of Public Health, found those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a strong tendency to adopt ruminating thoughts as a way to try to understand past trauma — “albeit unproductively,” warns the researchers. “Over time, this may become a more automatic, default response style,” researchers noted.  

Bipolar disorder  

Bipolar disorder and rumination are linked, as those with mood disorders tend to overfocus on their internal state, and this can generate ruminating thoughts, according to a report in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders

ADHD  

There is a correlation between ADHD and rumination. 

“In ADHD, there’s a tendency to hyperfocus on situations and activities, and that often includes hyperfocusing on specific thoughts,” Cooper said. 

According to National Survey of Children’s Health data shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2016 to 2019, 11.5% of boys and girls ages 12-17 had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. 

Trauma  

“A part of what makes trauma traumatizing is that it overwhelms the system,” Cooper said. “Your teen is not able to process other information, and they hold on to fragmented pieces of it. They store it in their brain — usually connected to some negative belief about themselves or the world — and that can impact them. They get stuck in that cycle of negative thinking until they’re able to look back and reprocess the trauma.” 

Stress  

When your teen is stressed, it can be harder for them to manage problems or events in a healthy way. This can lead to them being more susceptible to repetitive thoughts, Cooper said.   

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is linked with anxiety and depression, according to research in the Cambridge University Press — and therefore to rumination and other negative thoughts. 

“Perfectionism can definitely exacerbate a teen’s ruminating thoughts,” Cooper said. 

How To Stop Ruminating Thoughts  

If you want to know how to stop ruminating thoughts when they’ve become an issue, including how to stop rumination in OCD, Cooper recommended seven strategies.  

1. Practice mindfulness 

Teen uses mindfulness to reduce repetitive thoughts caused by OCD.
Teen uses mindfulness to reduce repetitive thoughts caused by OCD

“Mindfulness is very important because repetitive thoughts and anxiety live either in thoughts of the future or in thoughts around things that have happened in the past,” Cooper said. “Encourage your teen to take opportunities to experience being in the moment. Have them participate in activities that require them to focus on what’s happening at that moment in time.” 

Cooper also suggested merging mindfulness with exercise.  

“I think that getting outside in the wilderness and moving your body is important — it offers a natural layer of mindfulness being outside — and then you can combine that with walking or other forms of exercise,” she said. 

2. Get therapy   

“The research-based therapy that is prescribed most often for ruminating thoughts is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” Cooper said.  

However, if the ruminating thoughts are coming from something like PTSD or a past traumatic event, Cooper said eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may also be beneficial. During EMDR, which uses bilateral stimulation such as moving the eyes from side to side, teens process traumatic memories.  

“Therapies that support going for the root cause of the ruminating thoughts and facilitating healing in that space can ultimately lead to symptom decrease,” Cooper said. 

3. Consider medication  

Depending on the causes and severity of your teen’s ruminating thoughts, you may need to contact their doctor or a psychiatrist to discuss starting a medication like sertraline or fluoxetine. These antidepressants treat mental health conditions including depression and OCD, so they can help address rumination as well as intrusive thoughts.  

4. Plan and take action on problems 

Ruminating thoughts can be debilitating because they involve dwelling on a problem but don’t necessarily create a solution. Creating an action plan gives power back to your teen. Cooper recommended working with a therapist so the plan addresses your child’s specific needs and the cause of their ruminating thoughts. 

“It’s important to get a better understanding of the deeper issue,” she said. “For example, if there’s a teen experiencing perfectionistic tendencies around planning as well as ruminating thoughts around having a plan, the focus should be on getting to the core of what’s behind the repetitive thoughts, not just another plan to address the thoughts.” 

5. Build self-esteem  

Some ruminating thoughts come from a teenager’s low view of themselves. Building confidence and self-esteem — for example, you can help them identify their strengths, or celebrate with them when they overcome a challenge — can make them more resilient.  

6. Eat healthy foods 

According to Harvard Medical School, eating a healthy diet — one with plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits as well as antioxidants and foods rich in magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins — has been shown to help address some of the underlying causes of ruminating thoughts, such as anxiety and depression.  

7. Get plenty of sleep 

It’s important to get enough sleep each night. A report in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that prolonged sleep deprivation or chronic sleep abnormalities are risk factors for major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, which are linked with ruminating thoughts. 

The CDC recommends eight to 10 hours of sleep per day for teens ages 13-18. 

Ruminating Thoughts: Putting It All Together  

As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing your teenager’s repetitive thoughts. 

“The causes of ruminating thoughts are complex, and teenagers often need a multifaceted approach,” Cooper said.  

With your new understanding of how ruminating thoughts affect teens as well as the solutions available, including working with a therapist, you can help empower your teenager to be more positive and confident so they can more fully enjoy all life has to offer. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!   

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.