It's natural to reflect on distressing or angering thoughts such as upsetting confrontations or conversations that lead to romantic breakups. We usually think about such things for a while, process them and eventually move on. But some thoughts can get stuck in our heads such that we find ourselves replaying the same scenes over and over again, stewing and brooding over them for days, weeks, and even months at a time.
The urge to brood can be extremely powerful and the distressing thoughts often invade our minds whenever our guard is down. We can find ourselves stewing over them in the shower, mulling them over as we drive to work, ruminating about them when we're making dinner and getting all worked up about them when we're trying to fall asleep.
While this kind of brooding is common, over time, it is can become a habit that has an extremely damaging impact on our physical and mental health. Here's why:
1. Spending so many hours contemplating negative and distressing events often makes us view other aspects of our lives negatively as well. Studies found that habitual brooding increases our risk of developing clinical depression and of having longer lasting depressive episodes.
2. Stewing for so many hours and getting ourselves aggravated and irritable, makes us more likely to reach for a drink to "take the edge off." Not surprisingly, the tendency to brood is associated with a greater risk of alcoholism.
3. The internal tension we generate by brooding really eats away at us and many of us choose to "eat away" in response. Because so many of us manage our emotions with food, brooding is also associated with increased risk for developing eating disorders.
4. By spending so much time stewing over our problems instead of doing something about them, we reinforce feelings of helplessness and passivity which can lead to impaired problem solving. In one study, women with a tendency to brood who found a lump in their breast waited an average of two months longer to make an appointment with their doctor than women who did not have a tendency to brood -- an alarming and critical difference.
5. Lastly, over time, brooding and stewing increases our psychological and physiological stress responses to such an extent that it literally puts us at risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Clearly, brooding and ruminating are far from innocent habits as they can severely impact our long-term physical and mental health. But given how powerful the urge to brood can be, how can we resist the "brooding invasion" and rid ourselves of these distressing thoughts?
Brooding is similar to other common psychological injuries such as rejection and loneliness in that it creates emotional wounds that can fester over time. Therefore, it is best to treat a "brooding invasion" as soon as you catch one developing. That said, you can't just decide, "I will just not think about it!" because thought suppression doesn't work. However, distraction does. Therefore, when the first upsetting or angering thought pops into your head, distract yourself and prevent it from playing out.
The best distractions are those that require concentration like a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, going for a run, watching an absorbing movie (as long as it isn't on the same topic), or trying to list world capitals. Once you prevent the distressing thoughts from playing out, the urge to revisit them will gradually diminish, and your general disposition will gradually improve.
Doing battle with the "brooding invasion" requires discipline and effort but given how damaging rumination is to your health -- it is a challenge worth pursuing, one that holds the promise of a healthier mind and a healthier body.
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