Are You Problem Solving or Ruminating?

How to differentiate adaptive problem solving from maladaptive rumination

Posted Sep 28, 2014

As human beings, we have the capacity to reflect on our past behaviors. By understanding our previous actions, we can make informed decisions about the future. For example, let’s imagine that I overslept this morning and ended up frantically searching for an outfit. As I was running around, I knocked over a glass of water that was standing on my nightstand. It fell on my foot and blood started gushing, staining my socks and the carpet. I had to sit down and spend 15 minutes disinfecting my foot and cleaning up. I was frustrated beyond words. Later that evening, when I got home, I reflected on what happened in the morning. I realized that all of it could have been easily avoided if I had gotten up a few minutes earlier and/or if I had prepared my outfit the night before. In this sense, reflecting about the past can be extremely helpful.

Unfortunately, there are many times in which going over the past becomes quite unproductive. We get stuck trying to find too many why’s for too many things. We sometimes become quite self-critical in this process, asking questions such as “why can’t I ever do anything well?” or “why does everyone else seem to have their act together?” When we find ourselves asking these questions, our ability to reflect on the past turns into a vicious cycle of rumination. As I mentioned in an earlier post, rumination is very problematic because it prolongs negative mood (in many cases leading to depression) and it interferes with our relationships with others (because people can, and do, get tired of hearing us ruminate all the time).

But how can we know if we are engaging in adaptive self reflection or maladaptive rumination? One way of doing so is by asking ourselves whether our thinking is helping us solve problems or whether it is actually interfereing with our problem-solving capcacity. This is because when we ruminate, we focus on self-critical thoughts that prevent us from coming up with effective solutions. So, although it might appear that we are solving problems, we are just trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling bad about ourselves and being unable to solve problems.

A number of studies have examined the link between rumination and difficulties solving problems (see review by Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008). Usually, these studies consist of two groups of participants: high in depression symptoms (dysphoric) and low in depression symptoms (non-dysphoric). Participants in each group are randomized to one of two experimental conditions. In one condition, they listen to an audio recording prompting them to reflect on their shortcomings, mistakes, and failures. As such, this condition elicits rumination. In the other condition, participants listen to a series of prompts telling them to visualize a number of places and situations. This is the distraction condition. Following these inductions, participants are given a series of problems to solve. Over and over, researchers have found that participants in the rumination condition are consistently less able to solve problems than those in the distraction condition. They come up with fewer effective solutions and, even when they stumble upon good ones, they consider these to be less effective and/or they question their own ability to implement them successfully. Moreover, these differences between rumination and distraction tend to be more pronounced in the dysphoric participants. Thus, rumination might be particularly detrimental for those who are aready feeling depressed. As such, it perpetuates a vicious cycle of depressed mood and ineffective problem solving (for a review, see Lyubomirsky et al, 2015).

So, as you go through your day and you catch yourself mentally rehearsing the past, take a few moments to ask yourself, "is this type of thinking helping me solve a problem or is it making me feel less confident in my abilities?" If you answer yes to the latter, then you're likely engaging in adaptive reflection; however, if you begin to suspect that your thinking might actually be interfering with your ability to solve problems, then you might be entering a vicious cycle of rumination. When that happens, the best you can do is to try to try to take a break and focus on other things, at least for a while. It sounds way easier than it is, but with regular practice, it might become second nature.

Copyright Amelia Aldao, Ph.D.