By: Erin McGinn
Sometimes thoughts get stuck in a cycle like water circling a drain or, in worse cases, like a tornado spinning through your mind unchecked. However, you have control over how much damage you allow the tornado to do and whether you allow it to form. It is normal that you will sometimes focus on the negative or need to cry, but prolonging your focus there with attempting to solve your problems is an issue. This can be detrimental to your mental health and so it is better to focus on thinking that is problem solving oriented. Rumination can extend negative moods and make mental illnesses worse, so people should take steps to avoid moody abstract pondering over problem solving.
Rumination is a way of thinking that can keep you sad or angry for hours. This means that when someone has a mood disorder, it can make it worse. Rumination affects people across a wide variety of mental illnesses. It touches everyone from depression to alcoholism, to marijuana use, insomnia, to anxiety, and several physical ailments induced by stress (Watkins & Roberts, 2020).
However, it can impede treatment. “For patients receiving trauma-focused CBT for PTSD, patient rumination observed in early sessions for example, repeatedly returning to the same themes, asking “what if” “why” questions, was significantly elevated in poor responders to therapy relative to good responders” (Watkins & Roberts, 2020).
People who are prone to unhelpful rumination dealt with unhelpful parenting styles, sexual or emotional abuse, interpersonal stress, or difficult circumstances (Watkins & Roberts, 2020). Girls are more likely to ruminate than boys.
When Is Rumination Unhelpful?
There is more than one kind of rumination. Most people have spells of rumination. It is important to notice when it gets out of hand.
Reflective rumination is emotionally neutral pondering (Krieger et al., 2013); for example, looking up at the stars and reflecting on how tiny you are in the universe.
Brooding is a kind of rumination that is self-critical moody pondering (Krieger et al., 2013). A good example is thinking about that one embarrassing thing that happened five years ago.
Dwelling on problems becomes unhelpful if you get stuck. It goes on too long, and does not seem to reach any kind of resolution. Knowing the difference between these two is the first step to thinking healthy (Macaluso & Watkins. 2022).
It is important to note that rumination is not always negative. It depends on the type of thoughts. There are some things rumination on negative topics can solve. It can help people process and recover from trauma, plan for the future, recover from depression, and start healthy habits (Watkins & Roberts, 2020).
Throughout this article, when we refer to rumination, we are talking about brooding rumination.
Track your thinking. In a journal, write what you were brooding about. What triggered it? When did it stop? Do this as often as you can so that you can look for patterns.
Why Should I Stop Ruminating?
Rumination encourages people to avoid facing or solving their problems, instead focusing on how terrible the problem is.
Say you have a cavity and your tooth is bothering you, but you are afraid of the dentist. You might start thinking about how terrible dentists are and every negative experience you’ve had at a dentist so, you avoid going. However, you’re delaying treatment, which will make your bodily pain get worse. It will only get worse until you decide to get it filled or the tooth roots out of your head. This is avoidance justified by rumination and possibly past trauma:
Avoidance closes life down. Avoidance tends to spread out and generalize to more and more things, leading to a closed, not very fulfilled life. By trying to avoid bad things, we often curtail our activities so that there are fewer positive things as well… To reduce depression, you need to open up your options and possibilities and introduce the chance of doing exciting and rewarding activities—avoidance prevents and limits this (Macaluso & Watkins, 2022).
Usually our thoughts about what might happen are worse than the reality. If you have a bad dentist you can leave them and get a new one who will treat you with care. Your new step forward into a familiar area is not the same as the past because you have learned something that will help you get better results in the future.
When you find yourself avoiding something, stop whatever activity you are doing to avoid the action and take one tiny step towards doing it. For example, if you are avoiding writing an essay, set a timer and try to write for 20 minutes. If you have been delaying seeing your friends, send them a text asking if they are busy or call them. They like hanging out with you.
If you are still in doubt, ask if avoiding it will get you what you want. What will happen if you don’t do it? Is avoiding it benefiting you?
This is the most important exercise to follow.
What Does Helpful Thinking Look like?
Helpful thinking looks like, “What is going on and how do I fix it?” instead of, ”Why did this have to happen today of all days?” Helpful thinking promotes action. It involves taking measured risks because many times failure is not as bad as you think and you can learn from it:
Noticing that sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail and looking for what is different between success and failure is a key step in altering our thinking and behavior to become more successful. Deliberately looking out for how situations and actions vary is important to overcome the sense that nothing changes, which is often produced by depression (Macaluso & Watkins, 2022).
Journaling can help you notice the context of failures and find the differences because you have physical descriptions of each event that have all the details. You can compare them side by side.
One thing you can do to stop rumination is to ask yourself a series of questions.
- Is this thought relevant?
- Is it helpful?
- Can you change these circumstances?
This is called shadow work. To work through more of your shadows and get to a healthier place, start the Producer’s Playbook or join one of the journaling sessions at The Love Story.
Begin Journaling Here
Disclaimer: The Love Story’s Mirror Darkly hosts are not professionals, so please call 988 in the U.S.A. if your condition is serious.
Krieger, T., Altenstein, D., Baettig, I., Doerig, N., & Holtforth, M. G. (2013, September). Self-compassion in depression: Associations with depressive symptoms, rumination, and avoidance in depressed outpatients. Behavior Therapy, 44(3), 501–513. Science Direct. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2013.04.004
Macaluso, N., & Watkins, E. (2022). Rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. Nadine Macaluso. https://www.nadinemacaluso.com/nadine-resources/Rumination-Focused%20Cognitive%20Behavioral%20Therapy%20for%20Depression.pdf
Watkins, E. R., & Roberts, H. (2020). Reflecting on rumination: Consequences, causes, mechanisms and treatment of rumination. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 127, 103573. Science Direct. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2020.103573
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