Resolving The Unresolvable: The Difference Between Thinking and Ruminating

Thinking About Thinking

Happy Wednesday, friend!

You are reading The How to Live Newsletter: Your weekly guide offering insights from psychology to help you navigate life’s challenges, one Wednesday at a time.

Donating is Advocating

The How to Live newsletter is a free mental health resource. I spend hundreds of hours and dollars a month to keep it going and to keep it free.

Everyone who helps sustain this project becomes a mental health advocate.

If you’ve gained wisdom or gleaned insight from this newsletter, please consider a donation in any amount, or upgrading for $6/month and help me continue to keep this newsletter paywall-free.

Your patronage has an enormous impact and makes a real difference.

🙏🏼 ❤️

Resolving the Unresolvable: the Difference Between Thinking and Ruminating

Much of my time is spent thinking, reading, and interrogating myself and others about the myriad problems caused by existence. How can we know the unknowable?

How do we make conscious all that which is unconscious?

How do we make certain all that’s uncertain?

And how, as Rilke instructs in this perfect gem, do we live with all that is unresolved in our hearts?

While these are questions I’ve been grappling with for most of my life, they make living more interesting—they don’t stop me in my tracks, or interfere with my daily functioning.

It’s the thoughts that get caught in one place and repeat that ruin me; this stuckness is called rumination, and it’s a beast.

If I’ve learned anything over my thousands of weeks being alive, it’s that there is a way of pondering and worrying that is productive, and a way that can be quite unproductive.

When we think or worry productively, we move through a process that includes some amount of closure—when we think, we get somewhere. When we ruminate, however, we get nowhere.

We become trapped in a spin cycle of questioning with no foreseeable escape—we remain unresolved.

Ruminating is a trap posing as a good plan made by a bad friend.

People with a proclivity toward anxiety (hello!) often believe that worrying will solve their problems. Worrying is active; it offers a false sense of control over a situation, and anxious people tend to rely on it, misusing it like a self-soothing blanket.

The problem is that anxiety traps us in place, and so does ruminating. And just like anxiety, ruminating often causes the ruminator to feel out of control. There is a very thin line between worrying and ruminating—while both are symptoms of anxiety and depression, worry is more lenient, it’ll allow any thought in, no matter what it’s wearing.

Rumination, on the other hand, has a dress code. It prefers its thoughts to behave in the same manner—stuck and recycling the same negative material over and over again.

Ruminating is a trap posing as a good plan made by a bad friend. And like a bad friend, rumination is poisonous. When it surfaces, it’s a signal that something else inside of you needs attention.

A couple of weeks ago, I got caught in its crosshairs. A worry got lodged in my brain and caused me so much discomfort, I could not carry on with my day until I dislodged it.

I was so stuck in my head that I felt like this ruminating thought was now me, permanently: One-Thought-Amanda.

It lasted for DAYS. It was finally resolved when a friend asked me a question that helped prod the worry out of its wedge. She approached the question from a different angle, offering me some objectivity that I couldn’t provide myself.

While I was grateful to my friend, I wanted to do for myself what she had inadvertently done for me. But first, I wanted to get a closer look at rumination and ask it some questions.

I could think of no better person to help me do that than Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist, author, and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA.

“Rumination is the process of having repetitive thoughts that your mind gets you stuck on,” Dr. Chansky explains to me over email. “They are usually about a negative situation—a past relationship or interaction, a mistake, or some unfinished or pending problem—an upcoming test or challenge at work.”

In other words, thinking, like dreaming, is a way to process and digest information and rumination is a way to stymie that process.

“We don’t feel in charge of ourselves when we’re ruminating,” says Dr. Chansky. “Sometimes people can feel that it’s useful to ruminate, to be responsible, to analyze a painful event or relationship to try to gain a better understanding, but the retreading feels miserable.

It’s like trying to iron and re-iron out every wrinkle—what’s the point? People may describe their ruminations as they can’t stop their brain, they are overthinking it but can’t stop, their mind is in overdrive, or they feel trapped in their own head.”

I assumed that the opposite of rumination was simply just thinking, but it turns out, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.

“The opposite of rumination is deciding what you want to think about, having thoughts that you are choosing to think about, and getting to closure, or getting somewhere with those thoughts,” Dr. Chansky told me.

When you ruminate, you are recycling the same unresolved thoughts over and over again. If something is incomplete, the brain will keep it in circulation until it’s done. Dr. Chansky told me that in cognitive psychology, this is called “The Zaigerneck Effect.” Obviously, I immediately looked that up, and then spent an hour in a hyperlink rabbit hole—the equivalent of online ruminating.

I wanted to know how to get out of the cycle. Dr. Chansky gave me such an amazing list of ideas of how to defuse the vicious cycle of rumination—and with her permission, I’m going to publish all of her tips in the coming weeks, so please return here for more on the subject.

The first step, Dr. Chansky tells me, is to “bring separation between you and the feeling that you need to be ruminating.” To do that she suggests labeling it. A practical tool for anyone interested in improving their mental health is to take a moment and give name to what is happening internally.

When you’re stuck in rumination, stop and say: “This is rumination.” While she admits that “this may not stop the process on a dime, it helps you be aware and mindful of what is happening.”

Another tip she has is to fact-check yourself. “Write out the ruminative thought—and fact-check it for accuracy,” says Dr. Chansky. “Ask yourself: Is this the truest description of the situation? If not, what is?

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a concept called “Shenpa” and it refers to that sensation of getting stuck on something when you’re too attached—much like rumination.

Shenpa is the feeling you get when something pushes up against a pain point, and despite not wanting to feel it, you somehow cannot let it go.

Someone says something that strikes you as particularly passive-aggressive and, despite a full night of fun ahead of you, suddenly you’re clenched on this one moment and you will not be able to let it go until you somehow find relief or closure.

The concept of Shenpa—if you can remember it when you’re in its grip—wields a lot of power, and has gotten me through some superbly awful moments.

Before I learned about Shenpa, I would do all I could do to avoid that oncoming discomfort in my body. But once I found a name for it, I began the practice of labeling the feeling, which created the distance that allowed me to examine it objectively, as something separate from me.

I could observe it without becoming it. And once that happened, I could address it.

It’s remarkable how labels can take their shape. Either they mark you so deeply that you spend your life trying to shake free, or they release you from the burden of your exquisite pain.

When I was finally diagnosed at age 25 with a panic disorder, just hearing the words that named my suffering felt like enough for me to heal (it wasn’t, but you get my drift).

The truth is nothing is ever permanently resolvable, and the way that we can get unstuck is to accept this painful fact, and allow for uncertainty.

After all, life is the process whereby we try and gain steady ground, but it is not the steady ground. It’s never the steady ground.

And you? How do you get unstuck from the cycle of rumination? Tell me in the comments.

Until next week I am…


Special thanks to Dr. Tamar Chansky. All her books are wonderful, but for this topic, I highly recommend Freeing Yourself from Anxiety.



Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the greatest hits of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.

Most, but not all, links are affiliate, which means I receive a small percentage of the price at no cost to you, which goes straight back into the newsletter.

💋 Don't keep How to Live a secret: Share this newsletter with friends looking for insight.

❤️ New here? Subscribe!

🙋🏻‍♀️ Email me with questions, comments, or topic ideas! [email protected]

🥲 Not in love? 👇

Join the conversation

or to participate.