According to the response styles theory, rumination is a cognitive response to a stressor with repetitive and self-focused attention on a negative mood state. The attentional disengagement theory highlights that attentional processes are critical, underlying individual differences in ruminative thinking, such as reflective pondering and depressive brooding. Using a prospective design, the current study sought to determine whether attentional control for negative material was differently associated with brooding and reflection upon life stress. Spanning a period of three months, 76 never depressed undergraduate students completed a baseline measurement of attentional bias by using an emotional modification of the exogenous cueing task (T1) and subsequently, six weeks after T1, completed Internet questionnaires during their final examinations at four weekly fixed moments (T2–T5). Data were analysed with a series of multilevel regression analyses. Results revealed that the relation between stress and the use of reflective pondering is stronger when participants allocate less attention to emotional information (negative and positive stimuli). On the other hand, attentional control did not moderate the relation between stress and depressive brooding. On the basis of the current research findings, it might be important to train attentional control to disengage from emotional distractors, which in turn may increase the use of more self-controlling thinking in response to stress. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.