Healthy reflection is beneficial, but not when it crosses the line to destructive rumination. Learn how to move from dwelling on problems to solving them.
By Robin L. Flanigan
At a party with colleagues, you recount something funny to a few people. They laugh. Then one of them spots an old friend across the room and excuses himself. A minute later the others have dispersed as well, to get food or talk to someone else. You are left with a plate of hors d’oeuvres and a flood of negative thoughts:
They laughed at me and left because my story was stupid.
Why did I wear this dress? It looks horrible.
Why can’t I just be normal?
The thoughts repeat themselves, on an endless loop, even after you go home, even the next morning.
Dwelling deeply on some problem or concern can be a positive act of reflection that teaches us about our internal world or forms part of decision-making. Stewing over negative thoughts without moving into problem-solving mode has been found to contribute to depression and anxiety—especially in women—and lead to substance abuse.
“Every rumination has an emotional consequence,” notes Maynard W. Bell, a licensed professional counselor in Arizona.
For Lisa of Wisconsin, getting caught up in self-critical thoughts interfered with her job at a Fortune 500 company. Lisa has social anxiety disorder, so she dreaded having to speak at weekly team meetings for fear of being judged by her colleagues.
The result? Quick and awkward presentations that made her so uncomfortable, she was unable to listen to anything that was said afterward. From there, she would spin into eddies of self-loathing.
“I would spend the rest of the day ruminating, wondering why I couldn’t be like everyone else,” she recalls. “My thoughts would spin and spin until one problem became another problem, and it took a concentrated effort to focus on work. It was exhausting.”
Lisa went to a counselor who introduced her to meditation, a practice that now allows her negative thoughts “to flow through my mind without resistance.” She supports that practice by journaling and using positive affirmations.
“Identifying my negative thoughts wasn’t easy because I’d been allowing them to control me for so long,” she says. “But once I started doing this, I shifted into a more positive mindset. I was much more rational about situations.”
Overthinking and depression are woven together in complex ways. One body of research has established that people in a depression are more likely to have repetitive thoughts associated with shame, anger, regret, and sorrow. Meanwhile, another set of studies shows that people who ruminate are far more likely to develop major depressive disorder.
Additionally, exposure to stress has been shown to make both adults and adolescents vulnerable to rumination. Katie McLaughlin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, was part of a team that determined that the type of stress—whether moving to a new house (positive) or dealing with a serious medical problem (negative)—was irrelevant.
McLaughlin hopes those findings, published in 2014, help guide the development of prevention programs aimed at reducing vulnerability to rumination. If the health care community focuses more on promoting adaptive ways of thinking, she explains, people can be taught how to deal with stressful life events before “they get to a place where their thoughts are so intense and out of control.”
In an emergency room, that might translate to coping better with a traumatic event. At a college, it could mean recovering faster from a poor grade on a test.
While rumination about the past, present, or future may give the illusion of control, there’s an elusive cost-benefit ratio to the amount of time spent thinking about a problem and the real-world outcome. In other words, it’s not the almost obsessive focus associated with rumination that’s the problem, but rather that attention remains directed to potential causes and consequences instead of toward solutions.
In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, PhD, writes that people who exert the most time and energy analyzing decisions are usually less happy than those who are more quickly content with options deemed good enough.
Rumination can become a trap as traveling round and round the same thought loop reinforces pre-existing ideas.
“Instead of believing these well-worn patterns, we need to formulate new beliefs about what we think and who we are as a person,” says Andrew Fearnside, LPCC, a psychotherapist in New Mexico. “No one ever gets perfect at this, but formulating new beliefs is absolutely vital to being open to what’s happening around us. Because wherever we put our focus, that’s where we are.
“How we do this is ultimately a creative practice, and comes down to an existential and spiritual question: What does it mean to be alive?”
DRAWING A LINE
McLaughlin says that while people who ruminate often report that it helps them gain insight into their feelings, “we know through decades of experimental and observational studies that rumination makes it harder to solve problems and overcome feelings of distress.”
Yet Paul Andrews, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario, argues that modern diagnostic criteria may be pathologizing natural emotional responses. His research backs the notion that rumination in people with depression is a normal adaptation for solving complex problems.
“We think about the past not because we want to stay in the past, but because we try to understand our past so we can understand how to do better in the future,” he says.
“Sometimes our thoughts get in the way of life, but this does not mean our brains are malfunctioning.…They’re motivating [us] to find a new set of beliefs.”
Andrews says science can’t pinpoint where the line is drawn between healthy reflection and destructive rumination. Jonny of upstate New York appreciates the ambiguity.
“It’s not that rumination never causes problems for me, it’s that I don’t want to lean in to the idea that it is a one-sided attribute,” Jonny says.
On the one hand, replaying scenarios in his mind—even those from decades ago—started interfering with work and sleep and intensified symptoms that led to his diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
On the other hand, he says, applying that type of preoccupation to special work projects as a statistical analyst, or lessons plans as a college adjunct professor, allowed him “to catch possible errors or mistakes before moving forward with a solution. Essentially, rumination breeds meticulousness.”
Enrolling in a meditation class that targeted ways to catch and divert rumination was a “watershed” moment for Jonny. The class taught him that acting as if events will always play out the same way isn’t helpful. Therefore, it is a “cognitive delusion” to believe that by revisiting a past experience we can figure out—and therefore dictate—the future.
“We think about an explicit scenario again and again and again,” he says, “but no situation has the exact same context.”
WOMEN & RISK
Whatever side of the rumination dispute you fall on, one gender may be more prone to its effects than the other.
Edward R. Watkins, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter and author of Rumination-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression, found that in groups known to be at increased risk for depression, rumination is elevated in women but not in men.
A 2007 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology discovered that girls are more likely than boys their age to develop anxiety and depression as a result of “co-ruminating,” otherwise known as talking exhaustively with friends about a problem.
And in her book Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life, respected researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, explored how women in particular are less likely to lead a satisfying life because of intrusive, repetitive thoughts.
That was certainly true for Mary. The Texas woman’s intrusive worries interfered with both routine obligations and what were meant to be entertaining evenings out with friends.
When she knew she would be driving on the freeway, for example, the cycling thoughts would start long before she needed to hit the road: What if I get stuck in a traffic jam? What if I have to change lanes? What if I’m in a wreck? What if my car breaks down?
“There would be all these what-ifs and it would go on and on,” recalls Mary, who has depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
It was the same when attending live performances at the theater, particularly if she hadn’t been able to secure an end-row seat. What if she had to use the bathroom? She’d have to crawl over people in the middle of the show. Everyone watching her walk up the aisle would know where she was headed.
“I’d be thinking about how embarrassing that would be during the whole show I paid a lot of money to see,” she says. “I’d be squeezing my sweaty hands, holding on to them for dear life to try to think about something other than my bladder.”
Mary eventually gained distance from her tendency to ruminate by working with a psychologist and going on medication. She also made use of a rubber band or hair band on her wrist, whatever she had available on a given day.
“When you catch yourself overthinking, you just flick, and then you associate that with negative reinforcement,” she says. “And then you eventually stop.”
These days, in addition to seeing a licensed clinical social worker when issues arise, Mary does relaxation exercises and uses affirmations—stuck to the bathroom mirror and on the dashboard of her car—to help shift her awareness to a more positive place.
“Success builds on itself,” she says. “I can do almost anything now … hop on the freeway, no problem.” The rest room situation at the theater isn’t quite as easy, but she tells herself: “You’ll be fine, and if you have to go, you can get up and go.”
Using logic as a lifeline out of the overthinking sinkhole also helped Lisa recently, after she’d emailed someone in a position above her at work to share some feedback. She started ruminating about what the co-worker would think of her and why she’d done it in the first place.
Then she caught herself and applied some counter-arguments: It was the weekend. She wouldn’t be able to do anything about the situation until Monday. It would be normal for anyone to be concerned—not just someone with anxiety issues.
Lisa says being able to recover like that leads to more and more self-confidence, especially when she acknowledges her progress.
“You can say, ‘That was good, now I’m going to try again next week,’” she explains. “The only way you’re really going to start to notice improvement is to validate the changes you’re seeing with the work you’re putting in.”
* * * * *
Overthinking can get in the way of normal daily functioning, and science has shown it is a risk factor for triggering depressive episodes and anxiety symptoms. Some ways to protect yourself from rumination:
Redirect your thinking. Shifting into a more problem-solving mindset helps you deal with feelings of distress more productively. For instance, if an injury is preventing you from accomplishing normal activities, ask yourself whether there is something you can do right now—physical therapy, perhaps—that will help alleviate the problem down the road.
Use guided imagery. Turn your rumination into a headline, and picture that headline on a blank sheet of newsprint, suggests licensed professional counselor Maynard W. Bell. Maybe it’s, “Everybody hates me,” or, “This will never end.” Then envision the ink dissolving into black powder and running down the page. Alternatively, picture yourself standing by a stream, then see yourself putting the rumination on a leaf floating by in the current and watching it disappear over a waterfall downstream.
Practice gratitude. “This is the universal solvent,” says psychotherapist Andrew Fearnside, LPCC—a way to stand up to negative thoughts and deliberately create new thought patterns. Write a note one evening to start a gratitude journal. The next morning, take two minutes at breakfast to jot down a few things that you appreciate. If successful at that, set a goal to do the same for a week. Successful again? Add that to your gratitude list.
Printed as “Hold that thought,” Winter 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
(This and our other articles are provided by some of our curated resources. We encourage readers to support them and continue to look to these sources in times of need and opportunity.)