HSP Questions: Am I Ruminating or Processing?

What happens when processing turns into rumination?

If you aren’t familiar with the term “Highly Sensitive Person” or “HSP” it refers to about 15-20% of the population who possess a unique sensory processing trait which allows them to pick up more on subtleties in the environment, resulting in deeper processing and often being easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Most people exist on a spectrum of sensitivity, with about 1 in 5 HSPs who are considered High Sensation Seeking.  Learn more about HSPs here.

If you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), you probably pick up on more sensory information than others. You might feel a little extra anxious in crowds or chaotic places.  You notice the subtleties in people’s speech, the details of a room, and the indescribable nuances of language, music, or complex ideas.

Most HSPs, by nature, are cautious about new situations and are risk-averse.  They are great trouble-shooters because they may think about every angle of a problem and every outcome of a situation.  They are deeply empathetic, often considering other’s emotions, making them conscientious friends, lovers, and co-workers.

Is it any wonder you get overwhelmedYour brain has a ton to process every day!

What happens when processing turns into excessive worrying and ruminating? How can you tell the difference?

Rumination, in this context, means thinking about something over and over again without completion or progress on the issue.  This may feel similar to processing an experience, where you review and analyze the details and nuances of what happened.

Am I Processing or Ruminating?

The answer is highly personal, yet here are some guidelines:

  • Feels like you’re making progress or movement.
  • Can feel like a flowing river, changing speed and direction, but always moving.
  • Accompanied by neutral feelings or mildly positive or distressing feelings.
  • Focusing on the solution while acknowledging the problem.
  • May feel contemplative or curious.
  • Accompanied by balanced thinking, wise mind, or the ability to embrace the middle ground.
  • Ideally results in integration or acceptance of the experience, emotion, or idea.
Rumination/Excessive Worry:
  • Feels like being stuck or going in circles.
  • Feels like being on a hamster wheel.
  • Usually is accompanied by distress, anxiety, restlessness or other difficult emotions.
  • Focusing on the problem more than the solution.
  • Tends to feel catastrophic.
  • Lends itself to black and white thinking.
  • May arises when one is rejecting or denying an experience, emotion, or idea.

Some processing will bring up intense emotions, especially in Highly Sensitive People and Empaths.  You may notice emotions rise and fall, moving through you.  There is often a catharsis that comes with processing.  Yet, if you feel you are cycling through emotions without progress, this may be rumination.

Take a moment to reflect on your thought patterns and emotions. Do you tend to ruminate, worry, or process? All of the above?

As a Highly Sensitive Person or Empath, you know your world and experience better than anyone.  You are the expert of your own heart and mind.  If you’re being honest with yourself, chances are you already know where you fall on the process-worry-ruminate spectrum.  But if you aren’t sure, asking a trusted friend for support or some gentle feedback can be helpful.

If you notice you ruminate or worry frequently, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.  It’s great information that tells us that your mind and body need a little help or training on how to be more at ease and in the moment.  This may be a trait you inherited from your parents. It could be a behavior that was helpful at one time in your life (i.e. growing up in a chaotic household) but is no longer useful.

It’s also typical to find that not all life topics are given the same level of worry or processing energy.  Depending on life situations, experiences, and brain chemistry, you may process some experiences and ideas more deeply than others.  It’s important to pay attention to which topics hold the most charge for you, be that romantic relationships, family, work, or your life path.

Sometimes rumination and worry is a symptom of past trauma, abuse, or grief.  Consider seeking the support of a therapist or mental health professional if this is the case for you.  EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is proven to be very helpful with resolving past trauma and the symptoms associated with it.  Additionally, some medications have been shown to be helpful with intrusive thoughts.

How Can I Ruminate Less?

Decreasing rumination is about noticing when you are in this pattern and choosing something a replacement or distraction.  It includes practicing self-care strategies so that your brain is less likely to go towards worry and negativity.  It’s about taking meaningful action towards resolving the issue, or getting the support you need to do so.

Possible strategies:
  • Use the Worry Decision Tree.
  • Schedule worry time or create a worry journal.
  • Distract yourself with something neutral or pleasant.
  • Participate in the moment.
  • Examine beliefs about rumination/worry and challenge them.  Examples include:
    • Worrying means I’m responsible.
    • Worrying means I care.
    • I deserve to focus on this flaw of mine.
    • If I don’t ruminate on this, it will never get fixed.
  • Practice self-compassion.
  • Learn skills to manage your distorted thoughts.
  • Consider a meditative or mindful activity (i.e. yoga, cooking, gardening, walking) that allows your brain to wander while engaging your body.
  • Seek the support of a therapist, mental health professional, or trusted friend or mentor.
  • Set aside downtime time for rest and processing.
  • Consider using creative outlets, such as: mind maps, journaling, coloring, or art to support processing of challenging emotions and ideas.
  • Practice brain dumps in order to clear your head.
  • Learn skills to manage your overwhelm so that you have the capacity for processing.

As you continue to grow and learn about being an HSP, you will continue to develop and hone the skills and mindset that helps you examine your thoughts, feelings, and patterns.

You will continue creating a lifestyle that supports your sensitivity and need for processing, while cultivating compassion for when you fall into rumination or worry traps.

We get by with a little help…

As a therapist that specializes in Highly Sensitive People, I can help you understand the difference between processing and rumination.

We can work on skills to help you when you’re caught in a downward spiral of negative thoughts.

If past experiences feel ‘stuck’ in your head, we can explore EMDR and other options to fully process and resolve the experience.

I’d love to guide you as you start to more deeply understand what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person.

Reach out to learn more.   

For a free consultation, please call/text (720) 772-7413 or email me at arianna@quietmooncounseling.com 


Arianna Smith, MA, LPC

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