Do you ever worry about something and find your mind starts to spiral? Hours pass and you are still obsessing. This is called rumination, characterised by “overwhelming self-criticism and negative self-talk about one’s failures and shortcomings.” When we experience issues in our lives, it is natural to want to fix them. You might replay the same situation over and over in the hope of discovering a solution to your worries. However, most of the time rumination does not fix your problems because you are lacking adequate information and succumbing to irrational thoughts. Instead, it leads to depression and anxiety.
Why Do We Ruminate?
The authors of the blog, The Psychology of Success, have put forward three main reasons for why we ruminate.
Firstly, because it is human nature. We have evolved over millions of years to respond effectively to dangerous environments. We have developed an attentional bias for negative stimuli because in the ancient world, this would make us more adept at noticing dangers and increasing our chances of survival. We thus have an innate desire to pay attention when we receive negative feedback from the world.
Secondly, we are concerned with what others think of us. Humans are inherently social beings that thrive on positive relationships. When we experience conflict, it feels essential that we fix it. This can lead us to dwell on arguments for longer than is necessary.
Lastly, rumination may occur due to low self-worth. For example, it is common to ruminate after a break-up when people believe their ex-partner’s ‘rejection’ of them was a signal of their personal inadequacies. When someone has healthy self-esteem that is not dependent on others’ opinions, they realise rejections aren’t personal and don’t dwell on them.
The trouble with rumination is we truly believe we can fix our problems just by thinking about them. And in fairness, the reflection part of rumination can be helpful. This involves looking back on past experiences with the aim of learning something useful and processing your emotions. However, this can cross over into brooding, which is associated with less proactive behaviour and leads to a more negative mood. We can even ruminate when we aren’t aware of it, such as by venting with others; when we rant with a friend solely to refuel our anger, we are co-ruminating. You can notice rumination by obsessive, intrusive thoughts, little proactive behaviour, and low mood.
So, the next time you have an argument with a friend, or you get a low grade on a test, what is a better way to handle it?
1 Be proactive
Studies have shown that those who ruminate have impaired ability to problem-solve, compared to those who take a proactive approach, and this can lead to a lower mood. By taking charge of our emotions, we feel empowered rather than powerless. You will also relax in the knowledge that your problem is being taken care of. If you are struggling, find one small thing you can do to fix the issue.
2 Improve your self-esteem
As ruminating is often a result of low self-worth, doing things that build your confidence can help. Investing time in hobbies or personal projects will give you a sense of purpose and self-derived validation. Planning goals for the future and taking steps to make those goals a reality may also empower you and put your problem into perspective.
3 Try mindfulness exercises
By dwelling on worries, we miss amazing things in the present. For example, ruminating on a lost relationship could mean you miss the other great people in your life, like your friends and family. Mindfulness colouring, meditation or activities like baking and gardening can help you to live in the moment.
4 Know your triggers
The next time you start ruminating, notice the thoughts that triggered it and your surroundings. Then make a conscious effort to redirect your thoughts every time they occur or avoid certain situations that make the rumination worse.
Remember that as tempting as rumination is, it does little good in the long term. It is likely that you are making false assumptions, thinking irrational thoughts, and magnifying the issue.
All clinicians at Oxford CBT practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or are Psychologists, providing evidence-based interventions and support for a range of issues for both young people and adults. If you would like to book an appointment you can do so on our online booking portal. If you have a question please get in touch via our online contact form or call us on 01865 920077.