Rumination, a depression risk factor. Changing the way you think may help fight depression

Each of us sometimes dwells on the same subject: Why does it always happen to me? What have I done to deserve that? Repetitive negative thinking is a natural way of regulating our emotions. However, under certain circumstances it might become maladaptive and increase the risk of psychological disorders.

Monika Kornacka

Researchers working on rumination, i.e. repetitive negative thinking that is difficult to control, suggest that rumination may become a habit and we use it by default when we are feeling sad or upset. To stop habitual ruminative response and gain flexibility in emotional regulation, an efficient inhibition and ability to disengage attention from self-referent negative thoughts are necessary. The aim of our project was to examine the role of those processes as potential mechanisms of rumination.

In the first part of the project, we used a daily sampling method to evaluate daily rumination, mood and inhibition. It allowed us to determine dynamic relationships between psychological processes, such as rumination and mood. Depressed patients and healthy controls were provided with an application for their mobile devices. During the first week, five times a day, they answered questions evaluating their rumination and affect, and in the evenings they performed a task evaluating their inhibition. During the second week participants trained their inhibition by playing a simple game. Finally, during the third week, participants repeated evaluation of their daily mood, rumination and inhibition. The results indicate that daily rumination predicts participants’ negative mood, but negative affect does not predict prospective rumination. This is an important contribution to the literature, as the previous research results on the link between rumination and mood in daily life were not consensual. Determining this causal relationship is crucial from the clinical perspective in designing effective rumination treatments.

The present study was the first to evaluate the link between inhibition and rumination in ecological settings. Difficulties in inhibiting neutral and negative stimuli were linked to daily rumination and strengthened the impact of daily rumination on daily negative mood. Further analyses will provide a first insight on inhibition training on mobile devices, whether it decreases daily rumination and improves participants’ mood.

In the second part of the project we ran experimental studies in the laboratory. Depressed and healthy control participants were randomly allocated to one of three groups. The first group used abstract rumination to dwell on their problems; the second group used concrete rumination to focus on their own emotional feelings; the third group used distraction. Following those instructions, we tested participants’ inhibition and attentional processes by using behavioural and eye-tracking measures. Eye-tracking records eye movements and thus, it enables a very precise assessment of inhibition and visual attention. The results indicated that participants after using abstract rumination showed higher emotional reactivity than participants using concrete rumination. The eye-tracking tasks showed that they are also less flexible and fail to adjust their attention to the ongoing task, contrary to the participants using concrete rumination.

Merging ecological and laboratory approaches to study rumination enabled us to identify potential mechanisms of negative repetitive thinking (inhibition and attention flexibility). They should be targeted in future applied research addressing efficient rumination therapy for patients suffering from depression or with a high risk of developing it.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2016 statistics, 27% of adults suffered from at least one mental disorder (including 350 million individuals suffering from depression). It is numbers like this that make therapy of rumination and other depression risk factors crucial.

How did you benefit from the POLONEZ fellowship?

Working in a new, dynamic research team and collaborating with more experienced researchers enabled me to learn skills that were previously missing from my portfolio and which are nowadays necessary to conduct research in cognitive psychopathology at an international level. The fellowship also enabled me to develop soft competencies of managing an international research team, dealing with the formal and administrative requirements. The results of this research project were a solid theoretical foundation for my ongoing research project, recently selected for funding by NCN.
Finally, the course of the research project, the skills and collaborations I’ve developed were undoubtedly a key factor in recruiting me for the position I currently hold at SWPS University.


Dr Monika Kornacka (SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Interdisciplinary). Psychologist, cognitive-behavioural therapist. Head of Emotion Cognition Lab, Assistant Professor at Katowice Faculty of Psychology and Assistant Director of the Psychology Institute at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities.