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Rumination: Problem Solving Gone Wrong

How rehashing the situation can ruin your mood.

Imagine the following scenario: You're at work, the day seems to be going smoothly, and you're looking forward to a relaxing evening at home. Then, with 15 minutes left, your boss approaches you and informs you that you really messed something up. You apologize and try to explain what happened, but all your boss tells you is that you need to get your act together. Everyone has to deal with situations like this, and it would put most people in a bad mood. You have two options for how to deal with the situation: 1) Go home and enjoy the evening, leaving work problems at work, or 2) Let the problem eat away at you all evening and think about how unfair the world can be. Try to guess which is the healthier response.

By letting the problem replay over and over in your mind, you are engaging in a process which is called "rumination." Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one's negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting. Think about your own tendencies. When something upsets you, do you tend to mull on it, going over the problem again and again? If so, then you are probably a ruminator.

What's so bad about rumination, though? It's all about problem-solving, right? While it's true that problem-solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. They will often spend hours analyzing the situation, even after they've developed a plan for dealing with it. Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to it. This is where rumination becomes really problematic. If the situation has you in a bad mood, rumination will keep that bad mood alive, and you will feel upset for as long as you ruminate. If you ruminate on the problem for days, chances are, you'll remain upset for days.

The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns. Rumination is also connected to many different forms of self-sabotage. For example, if you ruminate on something upsetting a friend did, it's going to take longer to forgive that friend and get back to enjoying time spent with him or her. If you hold a grudge and constantly ruminate on what that friend did, you might even destroy a good friendship. Or, in the boss scenario that I mentioned above, if you ruminate, you are more likely to have problems with that boss and harbor negative feelings. But if you do what you can to make improvements and resist getting caught up in how upsetting getting reprimanded was, then you're likely to improve your situation.

So how do you overcome rumination? Well, have you ever heard the phrase, "Get your mind off of the problem?" The answer is simple: To overcome rumination, you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem. This is easier to say than to do, because when something is upsetting, we want to solve the problem as quickly as possible. But sometimes we need days or longer to solve a problem, and ruminating on the problem all that time will just make us miserable. So we need something to "distract" us from rumination.

There are many activities that can be used to distract someone from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course, you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work. If you hate reading, you will get bored and start thinking about the problem again—so reading may not be the best choice. Some of the activities that I often recommend are crossword and sudoku puzzles. These are good, because they require you to actively think about the puzzle and not the problem. Rumination is a bad habit, so you will need to work on distracting activities on a regular basis if you want to break that habit; trying distraction once or twice is not enough!

Remember, it's good to work on problem-solving and formulating a plan for improving the situation. But once you've got the problem and plan figured out, you need to do something else other than thinking about it. Do something fun, occupy your mind with something interesting, and give yourself a chance to calm down. You'll be amazed at how much better you'll handle the problem, and with practice, you will feel better on a regular basis!

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