We all experience daily stressors and situations or interactions that may be upsetting or worrisome. It’s quite normal to have those stressors occupy our minds in anticipation before or in reflection temporarily after they’ve concluded. However, when this thinking becomes relentless, and most importantly, when it begins to interfere with everyday functioning and distracts us from engaging in essential daily activities, it can be maladaptive and distressing. Rumination is a cognitive process characterized by repetitive, persistent, intrusive thoughts about the origins, causes, and consequences of negative emotions. Simply put, it is dwelling, overthinking, and feeling “stuck” in our thoughts. As expected, it can be quite a disturbing psychological experience.
Functionally, scientists leading the research on rumination categorize it as a response to stressful or distressing situations. People often engage in ruminative thinking because of the perceived benefit it might offer in helping to generate a solution to a problem or in an attempt to understand, control and eventually reduce the negative emotion. However, rumination is usually a passive process, and therefore, it is counterproductive to both those goals. Instead of allowing the individual to become proactive and seek solutions, rumination leaves the over-thinker cognitively inflexible and stagnant by fixating on the issue and the negative emotion itself as opposed to the solution. Moreover, persistent negative thoughts will lead to negative emotions, which will feed into negative behaviors. As a consequence, rumination will inevitably exacerbate the negative mood through this vicious cycle, and it is no surprise that it is often linked to disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias.
Although rumination can feel quite overwhelming, we are not powerless to it. Distracting ourselves by engaging in activities we enjoy like exercising, going on a walk, or socializing can be helpful in disrupting intrusive thoughts and alleviating their emotional consequence. Moreover, practicing mindfulness can help shift our focus to the present moment and can interrupt the persistent pattern of negative thinking. Lastly, when stuck in a ruminative cycle, we should take a moment to become aware of our thoughts and challenge them. It could be helpful to ask ourselves whether the problem we are overthinking has a solution or whether we are expending mental energy ruminating over a problem that is simply out of our control. Although this can be difficult to do in the moment, rationalizing our thoughts, and understanding our level of control over them could help us make sense of them and, hopefully, release the power they hold over us.
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