It is natural to reflect on painful experiences or worries. By going over such scenes in our minds, we hope to reach new insights or understandings that will reduce our distress and allow us to move on. But this natural process of self-reflection often goes awry such that instead of attaining an emotional release, we simply play the same distressing scenes in our head over and over again, feeling even sadder, angrier, or more agitated, every time we do.
We replay the scenes of a painful breakup and reanalyze every nuance of that last conversation, we go over the play-by-play of the last moments before we were impacted by trauma or loss, we relive all the meetings in which our boss criticized us in front of our colleagues, or play out various versions of an angry confrontation even when it is one we might never have. The urge to ruminate and brood can strike at any moment, taking over our thoughts when we are commuting to work, when we’re in the shower, when we’re making dinner, or when we’re trying to get our work done. Before we know it our mood is ruined and our emotions feel rawer than ever.
The 7 Hidden Dangers of Getting Caught in a Ruminative Cycle
Ruminating is considered a maladaptive form of self-reflection because it offers few new insights and it only intensifies the emotional and psychological distress we already feel. It might seem obvious that such ruminative cycles are emotionally distressing but less apparent are the significant risks they pose to our mental and physical health.
1. Ruminations create a vicious cycle that can easily trap us. The urge to ruminate can feel truly addictive such that the more we ruminate, the more compelled we feel to continue doing so.
2. Rumination can increase our likelihood of becoming depressed, and it can prolong the duration of depressive episodes when we do have them.
3. Rumination is associated with a greater risk of alcohol abuse. We often drink to take the edge of the consistent irritability and sadness that result from our constant brooding.
4. Rumination is also associated with a greater risk of eating disorders. Many of us begin using food to manage the distressing feelings our ruminations elicit.
5. Rumination fosters negative thinking. Spending such a disproportional amount of time focusing on negative and distressing events can color our general perceptions such that we begin to view other aspects of our lives too negatively as well.
6. Rumination fosters impaired problem solving. As an example, one study found that women with ruminative tendencies who found a lump in their breast waited 2 months longer than non-rumintators to schedule a breast exam.
7. Ruminating increases our psychological and physiological stress responses to such a degree that it can actually put as at greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
Breaking the Rumination Cycle
Because of the ‘addictive’ nature of ruminations, the best way to break the compelling allure of our brooding is to go ‘cold turkey’. Specifically, we must try to catch ourselves ruminating as quickly as we can each time, and find ways to distract ourselves so that we occupy our minds with something other than the focus of our ruminations. And to be clear—anything else will do. Whether it’s watching a movie, working out, doing a crossword puzzle, or playing Angry Birds, anything that requires us to concentrate will force us to stop ruminating. Over time, by preventing the rumination from playing out and by not reinforcing its allure, the urge to revisit it will diminish.
Distraction is not the only way to break a ruminative cycle. In future articles I will discuss other ways to ‘treat’ rumination, including those based on new and exciting research. For a full examination of the psychological wounds rumination can inflict and a comprehensive approach to treating these wounds, check out my book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
Reference: Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyumbomirsky S., “Rethinking rumination,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008 (3) 400-424.