The Rumination Rut

Women are more likely to ruminate obsessively.

By Ellen McGrath, published on April 11, 2003 - last reviewed on August 27, 2012

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.

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.