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How We Take Something Bad, and Make It Worse

A common mindset may feel natural but damage your mental health.

When upsetting or distressing things happen to us, we tend to mull them over in our minds. Self-reflecting on problems and experiences in this way helps us make sense of them so we can learn and problem-solve, which in turn allows us to let go and move on.

Only sometimes, we can’t let go.

Many of us get stuck replaying a breakup conversation, stewing over how our boss embarrassed us at a meeting, dwelling on an argument with a friend, or obsessing over the cold shoulder we got from a family member. We replay the distressing scenario in our minds and get upset, angry, or sad all over again each time.

Brooding (or ruminating, to use the psychological term) in this way is highly common but also incredibly misleading. The powerful urge to replay an event to get it out of our system makes us feel as though we’re doing something emotionally healthy. But in fact, we’re doing something that's emotionally damaging, because we’re not getting the thoughts "out of our system" by brooding—we’re embedding them in out minds even more strongly.

Brooding, by nature, is not solution-focused thinking but emotionally-activating thinking—and not in a good way. Besides getting us upset and releasing stress hormones into our bloodstream, brooding has been linked to a host of psychological and physical problems such as alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and cardiovascular disease.

But the biggest danger of self-reflecting in this way is its impact on our long-term mental health. Indeed, the seemingly harmless habit of brooding can put us on the fast track to depression.

This link between brooding and depression (as well as its other risk factors) is not new (read The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding and Ruminating), but now a new study breaks down the two mechanisms that contribute most to that link and by doing so actually offers hope to habitual brooders.

Ben Grafton and Colin MacLeod of the University of Western Australia looked at two dimensions of unhealthy rumination—the onset and the persistence of such thoughts. Ruminative onset refers to the likelihood of you falling into brooding when you feel upset, and ruminative persistence refers to the chances that your bout of brooding will continue once it begins. The team found that people who are more likely to slip into a brooding thought pattern when they are upset or triggered, and whose bouts of brooding are most likely to persist, are at significant risk for depression.

The problem is that once brooding has become a habit, such thoughts can pop into our head unbidden, making it all the more difficult to prevent bouts of brooding before they begin. In another new study, Maxime Freton and colleagues in France examined what happens in our brains when we brood. They found that brooders’ struggle to use self-reflection in solution-focused ways was even mirrored in their brain activity.

But the good news is that while it might be hard to prevent brooding from commencing, it is possible to bring a cycle of brooding to a sharp and sudden halt once it does. There are techniques you can use to shorten the duration of ruminations (and by doing so, minimize rumination persistence) which can in turn significantly reduce the risk of depression.

How to Snap Out of a Cycle of Brooding

There are various techniques to disrupt cycles of brooding, but the simplest and most user-friendly is to employ distraction. Your mind cannot focus on two things at once. When it starts to focus on brooding thoughts, making it focus on something else will automatically shut down the brooding process, at least in that moment.

The best distractions, then, are those that require concentration, such as a crossword or game of Sudoku, a memory task (such as recalling the songs in a playlist), or, yes, even Candy Crush. Studies show that a two-minute distraction can be sufficient to disrupt the urge to brood—and restore your mood.

To be clear, if you really want to reduce the risks to your mental and physical health you have to develop a zero tolerance policy for brooding. This is a form of habit change, and changing habits requires mindfulness (to catch the brooding when it begins), determination (to distract yourself even though it’s really tempting to indulge the distressing thought), and persistence (continuing to use distraction whenever you brood until the habit and urges to do so have subsided).

View my TED talk and learn how to boost your Psychological Health

For much more about brooding and many more techniques you can use to recover from the habit, check out Chapter 5, "Picking at Emotional Scabs," in Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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