Is Dwelling on the
Negative Hurting 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.
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.
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.
Cost of Rumination
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
when you are ruminating you are temporarily withdrawn from reality.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.
Does Rumination Make Sense To You?
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.
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.
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.
Your Rumination Helping or Hurting You?
helping if you actually get answers — and get them rather quickly. It’s
hurting if you continue repeating the questions and get nowhere.
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.
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.”
To Set Aside Rumination
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:
- 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.
And if you are a Spiritual Person, you can add a whole new dynamic to this train of thought. Not only do you have a chance to stop dwelling on problems, but you have a Creator who has given us promise in the ancient writings! The Bible, to help us with focus on the right things. The good things, not the negative, that is flooding us on all sides.