Ruminating: The Cockroach of Compulsions

March 1, 2023

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Way back when I was in grad school, my apartment complex had a roach problem.  Like.. a massive, get out of your apartment because we have to gas bomb the entire unit problem.  We tried everything to get rid of those suckers.  Our place was spotless.  We Googled endlessly about ways to kill them, get rid of them, and prevent them from coming back.  We put so much effort into figuring these things out, but at the end of the day, there was always another roach.  And another one.  AND ANOTHER ONE.  It felt like we would never be able to get away from them, no matter how hard we tried. 

Ruminating and mental compulsions are kind of like that

Come to find out, roaches are particularly hard to kill and dispose of because they are, evolutionary wise, beasts.  They’ve been around forever pretty much, and they’re evolving in such a way that they’re becoming almost impossible to kill.  Our exterminator told us at the time that roaches are essentially evolutionary masters.  They just keep getting sneakier and sneakier and, therefore, more and more difficult to beat. 

Wait, ruminating and mental compulsions are exactly like that!

Some professionals in the OCD field may use mental compulsions and rumination interchangeably, referring to any type of mental engagement or analyzing of a thought.  I don’t mind this, but I think mental compulsions can also be broken down in to more specific types or names that make a lot more sense to the people who struggle with them. 

More specific examples might include mentally reviewing, pre-planning or preparing, self-assurance, avoidance, distraction, and tons of other mental or non-observable acts that someone might engage in, particularly in order to find certainty or figure something out. In any case, rumination is a common symptom of OCD that involves excessive and persistent thinking processes that are unwanted.

Rumination and intrusive thoughts are not the same

Rumination often gets confused with intrusive thoughts, which I’ll explain in a later blog post. Mental compulsions can range from simple worrying to complex, irrational processes such as mentally reviewing information and can be difficult to control or stop.

People with OCD often engage in repetitive behaviors or mental acts, such as counting, praying, or checking, in an effort to reduce the anxiety caused by their obsessive thoughts. Some of these rituals are observable whereas others are non-observable and take place mentally.  However, these compulsions only provide temporary relief and can actually reinforce the cycle of OCD and anxiety in the long term.

When ruminating, we experience increased activity in the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. This network is associated with self-referential thinking and the tendency to dwell on the past or future. This excessive self-focused attention can lead to a distorted perception of reality and further entrench the cycle of rumination.  If you’ve ever become more and more confused or doubtful about something after ruminating for a while, then you know what I mean. 

Treatment is available and effective

There are effective treatments available for OCD, such as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). Remember, while ERP is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), not all CBT = ERP.  Tricky, I know.  ERP can help individuals to identify and challenge their triggers, and gradually expose them to the feared situation or object without engaging in compulsive behaviors – including mental compulsions.

Medication can help

Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also be helpful in reducing symptoms of OCD. You should always use medication in conjunction with therapy. Medication is effective in addressing the symptoms, but not the underlying causes of the disorder.  As my friend Caryn Gill has often said, medication helps get to the starting line, but it won’t run the race.

Effective treatments can help individuals to manage their symptoms and break the cycle of rumination.

To learn more about the OCD and anxiety cycle, including why compulsions such as rumination make you feel worse in the long run, AND an introduction to what to do about it – click the link here to check out my instant downloads and masterclasses. 

What would you like to learn more about when it comes to mental compulsions? 

Let me know in the comments or send me a DM over on Instagram @jenna.overbaugh. I’d love to hear from you!


This post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as mental health or medical advice. The information provided is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional advice of your own mental health or medical treatment, advice, or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical or mental health professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

© 2023 Jenna Overbaugh, LLC

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