The Rumination Rut

Rumination is a style of thinking in which, like a hamster in a cage, you run in tight circles on a treadmill in your brain. It means obsessing about problems, about a loss, about any kind of a setback or ambiguity without moving past thought into the realm of action.

The trouble with rumination is at least twofold. As you ruminate, you deepen the grooves in the brain, intensifying levels of anxiety and depression. And your problems remain unsolved, and are perhaps even exacerbated by the failure to move on them.

As Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema has shown, the tendency to engage in rumination exposes a huge gender difference in the handling of emotional experience. Simply put, women are predisposed to rumination, largely because they value relationships and thus devote a great deal of time and mental energy to processing the often-ambiguous content of them.

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And there they get lost, obsessing about issues without taking action. Men, in general, take the opposite tack. They are given to launching themselves into action without thinking their problems through well enough. As a result, the solutions they attempt are not always directly or efficiently focused on their problems.

When it comes to thinking styles, men and women need to learn from each other.

The following strategies can help you improve the way you handle your thoughts in difficult situations.

  • Assess your own tendency to obsess about problems. Think of it as a maintenance check for your brain. Ask not only your friends but also your enemies how much of an obsessor you are, on a scale of mild to moderate to severe.
  • Time yourself in thinking about a problem, whether it concerns one of your children, your work or whether to purchase a new vacuum cleaner. By the end of five minutes, you should have some sense of a next step, of the action required to solve the problem.

If you are thinking about the problem for more than five minutes, there is a good chance that you are a ruminator.

  • Men can especially benefit by looking at whether they are repressing their thoughts. How much time are you not spending in looking at emotion-related problems? Do days and weeks go by when you haven't given a thought to the most pressing problems of life? Again, rely on others—family, friends, even enemies—to give you accurate feedback on how good you are at repression.
  • If you are a repressor, allocate five-minute chunks of time to thinking through a particular problem. It's actually best if you can talk the problem through with another person. That will give you feedback that helps you open up your thinking, and the feedback will lead you to action that is then more likely to be on target—and thus more likely to be effective.
  • A key element in gaining control over thinking that errs on the side of obsession is the use of techniques of distraction through action. When thoughts begin to run away with themselves, it is necessary to break their hold by engaging in action-distraction maneuvers. Go for a walk. Go out and garden. Go into the kitchen and cook. Or open a book and read.
  • Understand that problem-solving always requires both processing your thoughts in a constructive manner and taking action on them; both are needed. But in difficult situations you need to know when to process whatever issue you are struggling with, and when not to, and how much. And that depends on how much energy you have.

You can switch between processing and activity modes as often as it takes to make headway on the issues that otherwise bog you down in rumination. If you are moving forward, you're going in the right direction.

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