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Getting Stuck in Ruminative Thought

A closer look at the science behind rumination

In last week's post, I discussed the emotional difficulties associated with worrying about the future. I mentioned that worrying appears to help us reduce our anxiety and uncertainty about the world, but in reality, it perpetuates a vicious cycle of the very same anxiety it’s supposed to help us manage. However, in that post, I did not get a chance to discuss worry’s close cousin: rumination. Thus, today I will provide a brief introduction to the science behind rumination.

In essence, rumination entails thinking repeatedly about one’s shortcomings and mistakes. However, unlike worry, which is focused on the future, rumination is focused on the past. Some of the questions frequently used to assess this process include “why do I always react this way?” and “why can’t I handle things better?”

The process of rumination gained a considerable amount of attention in the early 1990s, when the late Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema (who was my Ph.D. adviser) began documenting how engaging in this repetitive thought process perpetuated negative mood, particularly in individuals prone to depression. Over two decades of research on rumination suggests that it is associated with the development and maintenance of depressive disorders (see Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008). Furthermore, research conducted in the past decade indicates that rumination might be a transdiagnostic factor, that is, a process that is associated with a wide range of mental disorders, such as anxiety, eating, and substance abuse disorders (see Nolen-Hoeksema & Watkins, 2011 or one of my papers, Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010).

So if rumination is so bad for us, why do we keep using it? The answer is simple. Similarly to worrying, rumination gives us the illusion that it can help us understand the world better: “If only I keep asking myself why my date did not seem very excited about me, I will figure out what’s wrong with me.” Or, “If I keep re-hashing my disappointing performance at work, I will be able to understand why I’m such a mess.” Asking ourselves these questions is akin to jumping into a rabbit hole of negativity. Simply by the way they are phrased, they are begging for a negative answer. How can we ever answer “what’s wrong with me” in a positive way? We can’t. In addition, once we do find that negative answer, it never seems to be enough. It can’t be just that; there must be a lot more that's wrong with me.” So we keep on ruminating.

The truth is that there is a lot of stuff that is wrong with us. With all of us. And reflecting upon our mistakes can certainly be a useful and productive thing to do. However, when we become fixated with finding every single thing that is wrong with us, we end up painting ourselves into a corner and it becomes very difficult to take proactive action. In fact, this is what study after study on rumination shows: the more we engage in this process, the less likely we are to actually go ahead and modify those things we don’t like about ourselves and the world (see the work of Ed Watkins from the University of Exeter in the UK & Jutta Joormann from Yale University)

So, as you find yourself engaging in those ruminative questions, try to take a step back and ask yourself another question, “Is this the kind of thinking that is promoting taking action or is it the kind of thinking that is making me feel worse about myself and question my ability to bring about change?”

I know this is super difficult to do because rumination keeps us in a vicious cycle of negativity that makes it challenging to gain the distance we need to question it. But the more we practice, the more skilled we can become at stopping our ruminations. It all begins with trying to notice this type of thought.

For more info, find me on Twitter (@DrAmeliaAldao) or Facebook.

© Amelia Aldao

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