THE BLOG
12/30/2010 06:15 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Dwelling on the Negative Hurting You? The Cognitive Costs of Rumination

You are sitting at home and your mind keeps going over the negatives -- over and over. You keep reviewing what has happened to you -- perhaps a conflict with someone, something at work, your living conditions, your finances, your health. Whatever. You dwell on it. You are stuck.

What is Rumination?

A lot of people sit at home, dwell on the negative and find themselves getting deeper and deeper in their depression. Psychologists call this style of repetitive negative thoughts "rumination." When cows ruminate, they chew on their cud, chomping over and over without swallowing. When humans ruminate, they repeat negative thoughts over and over, dwelling on something either in the past or the present -- but do nothing to change anything. Ruminating is like spinning your wheels in the mud. You don't seem to be getting anywhere, so you just keep spinning your wheels, faster and faster. You keep digging a hole, find yourself stuck, and dig deeper and deeper.

Examples of rumination include repeating in your mind negative experiences in the past, replaying conversations that you had, dwelling on the "injuries" and "injustices" that you have suffered, or asking questions that don't have answers, such as "Why am I so depressed?," "Why me?," "What is the meaning of all of this?" or "Why did he or she say that?" You may ruminate about your physical maladies, your aches and pains, your emotions, your sensations or just about anything. The key thing is that you are stuck.

The Cost of Rumination

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Yale University has been studying this problematic style for years. Her research shows that people who ruminate are more likely to get depressed and stay depressed. She finds that women are more likely than men to ruminate -- and that this partly predicts the greater likelihood of depression in women. We also know that to some extent rumination is a way to avoid emotions -- you are stuck in your thinking because you can't face the emotions that you may have. You are over-thinking, trying to make sense, trying to get the answer.

And, when you are ruminating you are temporarily withdrawn from reality. You are not active, you aren't socializing, you are not living in the present moment. You are somewhere else -- in your head, in your thoughts, in a different time. You think you are "doing something," but you are not pursuing goals, nothing is happening, you are stuck.

How Does Rumination Make Sense To You?

Many people who ruminate actually don't realize that they have a choice. "These thoughts just come into my head and I can't get rid of them." It's as if a thought pops up and you have to entertain it for an hour. You don't. You do have a choice. For example, you are ruminating and the phone rings. You stop ruminating and talk on the phone. You temporarily set it aside.

Others ruminate because they believe that they will forget what they wanted to remember that was so negative. This is a combination of what psychologists, like Adrian Wells at the University of Manchester, call "cognitive incompetence" and "cognitive consciousness"-- where you don't trust your memory and you are continually focused on your thinking. You can't trust your memory so you repeat the rumination. But because you think you have to pay attention to every thought that occurs, you are overwhelmed -- and there is more to remember.

You also think that thinking about it will give you clarity, give you the final insight, and that everything will make sense. Adrian Wells's research indicates that ruminators often believe that they have a responsibility to figure it out, that their rumination will lead to solving a problem and that their rumination will motivate them. Sometimes, of course, thinking about what has happened can lead to learning from your mistakes, it can motivate you to try harder, or it can help you find some meaning in your experience. But many times rumination simply leads to getting stuck in the negative, withdrawing from reality, and trapping you in an endless loop of questions without sufficient answers.

Is Your Rumination Helping or Hurting You?

It's helping if you actually get answers -- and get them rather quickly. It's hurting if you continue repeating the questions and get nowhere.

It's helping if you get a to-do list today -- that is, some concrete behavior that you can engage in that will solve the problem. It's hurting if you can't figure out what to do except continue ruminating.

There are roadblocks in setting aside rumination. These include your demand for certainty -- "I need to know for sure." You won't get certainty in an uncertain world. Another roadblock is your unwillingness to accept that unfair things do happen -- and that rumination won't change that. Bad things happen to good people -- including you. If you demand certainty and always expect fairness -- and then dwell on these things -- you are losing your life one moment at a time. No one says, "I really care for you and I hope that you ruminate every day over the next year."

How To Set Aside Rumination

If you have concluded that rumination is a problem for you -- or if your partner thinks you are complaining too much about your negative thoughts -- then consider the following:

  1. Will this rumination really help me? What do you hope to gain? Will you really "get the answer?" Will everything make sense? Has it really worked for you? If not, try the next step.

  • Set aside rumination time.
    This is quite simple, but you will think it may be impossible. Write out the topic of your current rumination -- when it occurs -- and set up an appointment with it later in the day. Let's say your rumination time is 4:30 PM. If you ruminate at 10 AM or 10 PM then write it down and think about it at 4:30. Chances are it won't bother you very much when you meet up with it -- and you will be able to enjoy your life during the rest of the day.
  • Is there a real problem to solve now?
    I like to use this with my own rumination. If I find myself dwelling on something, I try to ask myself, "Is there a problem to solve?" If there is, I then go into problem-solving mode, listing the goal, resources, and writing out a plan, if necessary. Often there is no real problem to solve -- it's a problem that happened in the past. It's unfortunate, perhaps, but it's dead and gone.
  • Focus on goals that you can accomplish.
    A lot of your rumination is focusing on goals you can't achieve -- like changing the past. Let's say that life is a buffet. If one of the entrees is distasteful, try something else. If you are focusing on a conversation last week -- and you are miserable and ruminating -- then refocus onto something that is fun today. Changing goals changes the way you think and feel.
  • Learn to accept the world in order to live in it. You often ruminate because they reality you chew on is not the one you can swallow. Try accepting that things can be unclear, unfair, unfortunate and unpleasant. That doesn't mean you like it -- doesn't mean you are saying it's "OK." It just means that you say, "I notice it is what it is, but I want to get on with my life." If you don't accept what is given, you will drag yourself down further -- it's like treating yourself unfairly (by ruminating) because unfair things have happened. Accepting the past allows you to build the future.
  • Keep in mind that living in your repetitive thoughts will not solve the problems you need to solve and will not give you the pleasure of the present moment. You have been hitting yourself in the head with rumination. Put down the hammer and pick up your life.