Ruminating is like a record that’s stuck and keeps repeating the same lyrics. It’s replaying an argument with a friend in your mind. It’s retracing past mistakes.
When people ruminate, they over-think or obsess about situations or life events, such as work or relationships.
Research has shown that rumination is associated with a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge-drinking and binge-eating.
Why does rumination lead to such harmful results?
For some people, drinking or binge-eating becomes a way to cope with life and drown out their ruminations, according to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D, a psychologist and professor at Yale University.
Not surprisingly, ruminating conjures up more negative thoughts. It becomes a cycle.
Nolen-Hoeksema’s research has found that “when people ruminate while they are in depressed mood, they remember more negative things that happened to them in the past, they interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and they are more hopeless about the future.”
Rumination also becomes the fast track to feeling helpless. Specifically, it paralyzes your problem-solving skills. You become so preoccupied with the problem that you’re unable to push past the cycle of negative thoughts.
It can even turn people away. “When people ruminate for an extended time, their family members and friends become frustrated and may pull away their support,” Nolen-Hoeksema said.
Why People Ruminate
Some ruminators may simply have more stress in their lives which preoccupies them, Nolen-Hoeksema noted. For others, it may be an issue of cognition. “Some people prone to ruminate have basic problems pushing things out of consciousness once they get there,” she said.
Women seem to ruminate more than men, said Nolen-Hoeksema, who’s also author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. Why? Part of the reason is that women tend to be more concerned about their relationships.
As Nolen-Hoeksema observed, “interpersonal relationships are great fuel for rumination,” and ambiguities abound in relationships. “You can never really know what people think of you or whether they will be faithful and true.”
How To Reduce Rumination
According to Nolen-Hoeksema, there are essentially two steps to stop or minimize rumination.
1. Engage in activities that foster positive thoughts. “You need to engage in activities that can fill your mind with other thoughts, preferably positive thoughts,” she said.
That could be anything from a favorite physical activity to a hobby to meditation to prayer. “The main thing is to get your mind off your ruminations for a time so they die out and don’t have a grip on your mind,” she advised.
2. Problem-solve. People who ruminate not only replay situations in their head, they also focus on abstract questions, such as, “Why do these things happen to me?” and “What’s wrong with me that I can’t cope?” Nolen-Hoeksema said.
Even if they consider solving the situation, they conclude that “there is nothing they can do about it.”
Instead, when you can think clearly, “identify at least one concrete thing you could do to overcome the problem(s) you are ruminating about.” For instance, if you’re uneasy about a situation at work, commit to calling a close friend so you can brainstorm solutions.
Nolen-Hoeksema has also studied the opposite of rumination: adaptive self-reflection. When people practice adaptive self-reflection, they focus on the concrete parts of a situation and the improvements they can make.
For instance, a person may wonder, “What exactly did my boss say to me that upset me so much yesterday?” and then come up with, “I could ask my boss to talk with me about how I could get a better performance evaluation,” Nolen-Hoeksema said.
Do you tend to ruminate? What has helped to reduce your ruminating ways?
Photo by Renato Ganoza, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.