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How to Ruminate Productively

You might be thinking about rumination the wrong way.

Key points

  • Rumination is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression.
  • "Brooding" can lead to worse outcomes in the act of rumination than "pondering."
  • An active coping style is often better than a passive one.
Anderson Martins/Pexels
Looking at the past can interfere with the present.
Source: Anderson Martins/Pexels

What is rumination? Rumination has been defined as "the tendency to focus passively and repetitively on one's symptoms of depression and on the possible causes and consequences of those symptoms without taking action to relieve them." 1 The word "rumination" can also refer to the digestive process where cows, sheep, goats, and other animals (including giraffes!) that have multiple stomach compartments do not completely chew their food but rather create balls of cud that pass through each compartment before fully being digested over an extended period of time. In a sense, when we are going over past events in our minds, again and again, we are behaving like our fellow "ruminants" in the animal world.

The process of ruminating often involves elements of negative focus on the self and self-blame. Indeed, rumination has been positively linked with higher levels of anxiety and depression.2 Furthermore, a ruminative response style can also predict the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and higher severity of symptoms.3

Despite our intuition that rumination is unhealthy for us, it can be challenging to distinguish rumination from healthy ways of coping with emotionally distressing thoughts about our lives, such as introspection, positive reappraisal, and active problem-solving.

What is the difference between rumination and reflection?

Researchers took a closer look at the factors underlying people's different styles in how they typically respond to feeling depressed. They were able to identify two different variables when it comes to rumination that had different correlations with depression: brooding and pondering.4 The study defined brooding as "drawing one's attention to one's problems and their consequences" and pondering as "actively seeking an understanding and solution to one's problems." Brooding was found to have a higher correlation to depression than pondering.

The items scoring high for brooding included thinking the following:

1. "Why can't I handle things better?"

2. "Why do I have problems other people don't have?"

3. "Why do I always react this way?"

4. "What am I doing to deserve this?"

5. Thinking about a recent situation and wishing it had gone better.

As you can see, brooding involves a certain amount of dwelling on the negative and framing this negativity as something pervasive and persistent about yourself or the world.

On the other hand, items scoring high for pondering include thinking the following:

1. Going away by yourself and thinking about why you feel this way.

2. Going someplace alone to think about your feelings.

3. Writing down what you are thinking about and analyzing it.

Obviously, there is still a way to do these things in a brooding fashion, but the difference is that when you ponder, you are actively working towards understanding your thoughts and feelings and finding a solution, whereas when you brood, it might sound like you are trying to understand your thoughts and feelings because you are asking yourself "why" questions, but these are more rhetorical "why me" questions rather than open, curious ones.

So, what can we take away from this research? Here are three tips to chew on:

1. Don't brood. Ponder.

If you find yourself repetitively going over certain thoughts or feelings, notice if you are truly working towards understanding and finding a solution or if you are subtly berating yourself. A helpful strategy you might use is to rephrase the questions you ask yourself. Instead of asking yourself, "Why do I feel so depressed/anxious all the time?" you can ask, "What are the patterns of thinking that typically lead to my feeling more depressed or anxious?" Rather than saying, "I wish I had more X," we might start with, "What is important about X to me?" and "What feelings do I have around X?"

2. Avoid avoidance.

Psychologists have suggested that rumination is actually a type of emotional avoidance with regard to our experiences.5 In focusing our attention on thinking about the content of experiences, we often avoid making contact with the emotions these experiences inspire. In turn, avoidance of emotions leads to a lack of emotional processing. Just like with food, we need to properly process and digest our emotions, or else we have bigger problems down the line.

3. Be an active coper.

Active coping has been shown time and time again to be more effective than passive coping for dealing with problems like chronic pain,6 depression,7 and psychological distress. Active coping means dealing directly with our problems and being willing to experience short-term discomfort. Passive coping tends to involve engaging in behaviors that "help" us avoid discomfort in the short-term but do little to address the actual issues at hand or cultivating our ability to overcome challenges. You can practice your active coping skills by pondering, not brooding, the next time something is eating you up inside.

References

1. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1998). Ruminative Coping with Depression. In J. Heckhausen & C. Dweck (Eds.), Motivation and Self-Regulation across the Life Span (pp. 237-256). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511527869.011

2. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of abnormal psychology, 100(4), 569.

3. Fink, G. (Ed.). (2016). Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior: Handbook of Stress Series, Volume 1 (Vol. 1). Academic Press.

4. Armey, M. F., Fresco, D. M., Moore, M. T., Mennin, D. S., Turk, C. L., Heimberg, R. G., Kecmanovic, J., & Alloy, L. B. (2009). Brooding and pondering: isolating the active ingredients of depressive rumination with exploratory factor analysis and structural equation modeling. Assessment, 16(4), 315–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191109340388

5. Martell, C. R., Addis, M. E., & Jacobson, N. S. (2001). Depression in context: Strategies for guided action. WW Norton & Co.

6. Snow-Turek, A. L., Norris, M. P., & Tan, G. (1996). Active and passive coping strategies in chronic pain patients. Pain, 64(3), 455-462.

7. Holahan, C. J., Moos, R. H., Holahan, C. K., Brennan, P. L., & Schutte, K. K. (2005). Stress generation, avoidance coping, and depressive symptoms: a 10-year model. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 73(4), 658.

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