Do you ever get stuck for hours or even days on something that went wrong or upset you? Maybe it was a fight with someone, or making a mistake at school or work, or something not working out the way you hoped it would. Whatever it might be, your mind plays it over and over like a song on repeat.
It’s called rumination, and it means that we over-think or obsess about situations… and it’s incredibly destructive. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D, a psychologist and professor at Yale University 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.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While you’re replaying the event over and over, you’ve also replayed a ton of other unpleasant memories in your mind, not to mention gone down the list of everything currently wrong in your life. No wonder you feel worse than you did after the original event!
Everyone does it occasionally, but people who frequently ruminate are much more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome without changing ruminative thought patterns. Sometimes, people try to deal with rumination with eating disorders, addictions, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms, but these just create their own problems.
Or sometimes, people keep ruminating because they believe they’re gaining insight from it. They believe if they analyze the situation thoroughly enough, they’ll figure out a way to fix it. While it’s true that thinking it through should lead to coming up with solutions or making improvements, most of the time our problem-solving abilities get shut down because we are too caught up in how upsetting the situation is. We end up feeling helpless, frustrated, or depressed.
Denying or avoiding our feelings is one unhealthy end of the spectrum, and rumination is on the other. The goal is what Nolen-Hoeksema calls adaptive self-reflection. This involves processing your emotions so that you don’t ignore or get stuck in them, and also focusing on the concrete parts of the situation and the improvements that can be made. Effective problem-solving asks answerable questions that lead to a useful decision or plan.
Do ask concrete, helpful questions such as:
- What can I control in the situation?
- How can I respond in a way that honors myself and others?
- How can I grow from this?
- What are the potential positives of this?
Don’t ask abstract, self-defeating questions such as:
- Why do things like this always happen to me?
- Why are things so unfair?
- Why can’t I handle things better?
Next week I’ll talk about the next step in overcoming the rumination habit. (Update: Check out How to Stop Dwelling on Things – Part 2.)
What was the last thing you ruminated about? Did ruminating make you feel better or help the situation, or make things worse?