Repetitive Thoughts: Emotional Processing or Rumination?

Emotional Processing, Rumination, and Stress: What's Healthy?

Rumination can be stressful.
Rumination is different from just solving a problem. Here's how to avoid ruminating when stressed.. Creative RM/Tara Moore/Getty Images

I’ve written about rumination several times because it is such a stress-magnifier, and many people are prone to it at one time or another. Rumination—the habit of obsessing over negative events that happened in the past—is associated with many negative effects, both on the mind and the body. (Read about the effects of rumination here.)

Rumination, however, is an easy mode to slip into when we’re stressed, because it begins with the simple desire to solve the problems that are plaguing us.

(Solving the problem, we reason with ourselves, will relieve our stress. How can this be a bad idea?) Those who do not examine, make sense of, and learn from the difficulties in their lives are destined to repeat them, we reason, so it becomes more difficult to let go of our ruminative tendencies. What’s a serenity-seeker to do?

Rumination: How It Works

Most people don’t set out to ruminate over their problems. Most of us want to be happy, and want to focus on thoughts that make us happy. The problem comes in when something really frustrating, threatening, or insulting happens to us—something that is difficult to accept—and we can’t let it go. We may be trying to make sense of it in our mind, making an attempt to learn from it, or we may just be seeking validation that this should not have happened. Whatever the reason, though, we can’t stop thinking about it, and when we think about it, we become upset.

Rumination may involve going over the details of a situation in one’s head or talking to friends about it, but the defining aspect of rumination that differentiates it from regular problem-solving is the unproductively negative focus it takes.

How Does Rumination Differ From Emotional Processing?

I’ve had several readers ask me the same question that I wondered myself upon learning about rumination: if we don’t think about our problems, how can we hope to solve them or learn from the process?

Should we just focus only on the positive, and don’t we sacrifice growth and solutions in the long run if we don’t focus on unpleasant situations from time to time? This is an important question; knowing the happy midpoint between ignoring problems and engaging in rumination can save us a lot of stress!

Basically, rumination involves negative thought patterns that are immersive or repetitive. Many people slip into rumination when they are trying to process their emotions, but they become “stuck” in negative patterns of replaying past hurts without moving toward solutions or feelings of resolution. What distinguishes rumination or “dwelling on problems” from productive emotional processing or searching for solutions is that rumination doesn’t generate new ways of thinking, new behaviors, or new possibilities. Ruminative thinkers go over the same information repeatedly without change, and stay in a negative mindset. Rumination can even be ‘contagious’ in a way; it is possible for two people to engage in “co-rumination” and keep a negative situation alive between them with little movement toward the positive.

Recognizing Rumination In Yourself

What does rumination look like, and how is it different from productive emotional processing? Rumination and emotional processing both tend to focus on problems, and usually on emotions surrounding these problems. Rumination, however, tends to have a more negative bent--often including thought patterns that involve pessimism and cognitive distortions, and focusing mainly on the negative aspects of a situation. Emotional processing, by contrast, may start out this way, but leads to acceptance and release of negative emotions, while rumination keeps you "stuck."

As a general rule, if you find yourself focusing on a problem for more than a few idle minutes, feeling worse than you started out feeling, with no movement toward accepting and moving on, and no closer to a viable solution, you have probably fallen into the trap of rumination. (Likewise with a conversation with a friend--if the above are true, and if you both end up feeling worse afterward, you've likely just engaged in co-rumination.)

What To Do About Rumination

The thing is, although rumination makes us feel worse rather than better, it can be really difficult to give up, especially if you don't recognize it as rumination, or you don't know how to stop. These tips on letting go of stress and anger can help with ruminative thinking. This article on dealing with negative emotions can also help with rumination and the feelings of stress that come with it. And these tips on letting go of rumination can help you to rid yourself of the rumination habit for good!

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