Are You Ruminating or Emotionally Processing?



– Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


Brian often finds himself thinking about a time when he was fired from his job as a manager at a reputable software company. He was a good manager and put in a lot of work in order to help the business succeed. However, Brian often butted heads with the other managers and would disregard protocol in favor of acting according to his own judgement.  Now, several years later, Brian is happy in another job but still feels scorned by this unfair termination. He replays all of the successful decisions and interactions he carried out as a software manager and becomes more resentful and bitter. He goes over what he wished he would have said when they fired him. Brian finds some satisfaction in this, although it does nothing to help him release his emotional burden and move on from the situation.

Lucy was in a similar situation. She worked as a doctor and was fired after her supervisor found out she was taking shortcuts in her patient documentation. Initially, Lucy felt embarrassed and defensive. When she had time to cool down, she realized she was feeling these emotions because she had made a mistake. She knew her lapse in judgement was not because she didn’t care about her job, but acknowledged that it was a multitude of small stressors that had piled up. Lucy still feels embarrassed when the memory pops into her mind, but reminds herself that it was a lesson she needed to learn. She now works at a smaller practice where there is less stress and takes extra care to carry out proper protocol.  


How Does Rumination Differ From Emotional Processing?

As these narratives illustrate, rumination and emotional processing are two distinct psychological processes. It’s helpful to understand adaptive emotional processing and the point at which it can turn into an unhealthy and unhelpful mental compulsion.

Here’s a basic breakdown of the two concepts:

  • Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively dwell on perceived failures, mistakes, regrets or negative experiences without ever reaching a satisfying resolution or finding an answer.
  • Emotional processing involves actively working through one’s emotions in order to better understand them. It encompasses a range of adaptive strategies such as recognizing, expressing and reflecting on emotions, as well as finding meaning and learning from emotional experiences.


Here are some basic differences between rumination and emotional processing:

1. The first difference involves the amount of control an individual feels like they have over their thoughts: 

    • Rumination can sometimes feel like it’s occurring out of one’s control but it is a process that requires a willing participant. That’s not to say individuals want to be replaying past events and analyzing them excessively. They do so because it provides some them with some feeling of “control” over a situation in which they have none. The concept of “worrying as a means of solving a problem” describes rumination.
    • Emotional processing is more of a deliberate process, as it requires an individual to engage in active self-reflection. Rather than a coping mechanism to gain “control”, individuals use emotional processing to help them gain better insight and understanding of their internal experience.


 2. Another difference is the effect of the thoughts and behaviors on the individual:

    • Rumination can prolong and intensify negative emotions, increase stress levels, and contribute to the development or maintenance of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
    • Emotional processing is about acknowledging and exploring various emotional experiences to gain insight and promote psychological growth. It helps individuals understand and make sense of their emotions, facilitate emotional regulation and foster resilience.


3. The last major difference can be identified time orientation:

    • Rumination tends to be past-focused, as it involves replaying past events and getting stuck in negative memories or regrets.
    • Emotional processing often involve past events but the purpose is present-focused or future-oriented. It encourages one to integrate lessons learned from emotional experiences to inform future emotional responses and behavior.


How to replace rumination with emotional processing

  • Awareness: Recognizing and identifying emotions as they arise within oneself. This involves being mindful of one’s feelings and understanding their underlying causes.
  • Reflection: Engaging in self-reflection to gain insight into the meaning and significance of emotions. This may involve exploring the triggers, past experiences, or personal beliefs that contribute to specific emotional reactions.
  • Acceptance: Acknowledging and accepting one’s emotions without judgment or suppression. It involves allowing oneself to experience and express emotions without trying to resist or control them.
  • Problem-solving: Identifying and addressing the underlying issues or challenges that may be causing distress.
  • Integration: Incorporating emotional experiences into one’s overall sense of self and personal growth. This means integrating the lessons learned from emotional experiences and using them to inform future emotional responses and behavior.
  • Self-Care: Engaging in activities or experiences that allow for the release of pent-up emotions. This can include engaging in physical exercise, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, or engaging in creative outlets like writing or art.


Seeking Mental Health Support

Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center is a good first step in talking through upsetting thoughts. Our therapists specialize in treating OCD and are familiar with all types of thoughts — intrusive and otherwise. Meet our team to learn more!


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