The Psychology of the Ruminating Mind
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 22, 2022
Our mind can get stuck in ruminations that destroy happiness and invite depression.
We ruminate. Upsetting events stick in our minds. We can't let it go. Around and around we go, circling the event, viewing it from different angles. Thinking of better ways we could have or should have reacted. Post fact and endless ruminations, we come up with some pretty powerful zingers. Give me about 8 hours of rumination and I will have the perfect retort. In the mean time, while our mind is bouncing around the ill-feeling experiencing, exploring every nook and cranny, hoping to discover a resolution, we experience heightened stress.
Basically, rumination is impulsive thinking about the various aspects of a distressing situation. Often, the event is something that has occurred as opposed to worry which is often focused on something looming in the future.
Research suggests that happiness is often "negatively associated with excessive, negative, self-focused processing; i.e. rumination" (Luo, et al. 2016).
Rumination is repetitively and impulsively thinking about the causes, surrounding factors, and consequences of a negative emotional experience.
Problem Solving and Rumination
Reflecting on a stressful event has benefits. We can explore the features, uncover areas for improvement, or ways to repair damage, and move forward enlightened.
However, ruminators take the practice too far, engaging in thought for too long. Often, ruminations get stuck in ruts, reliving random events with little implication on our future. We ruminate over a stupid comment of a rude person in the grocery store parking lot. We'll never encounter that same person again. Nothing can be gained from the three-hours of lost sleep ruminating over an event that is dead and gone.
"When we brood over an episode, we magnify the event, keeping it alive, rotting our souls with unsettled business" (Murphy, 2008).
Default Mode Network and Rumination
Research suggests that the default mode network (DMN) is involved in rumination. The DMN is an interconnected series of brain regions that are active during thought, daydreaming, or reminiscing. The default mode network is thought to subserve a host of internally focused attentional processes. Depression is associated with excessive connectivity in the default mode network (Rodriguez, 2020).
The excessive activation in some individuals create attentional control difficulties that may underlie ruminative thinking, undermining attempts to disengage from thoughts about self related material (Belleau, et al. 2015). The network most involved in disengaging in ruminative thinking is the executive network. Activation is the executive network is negatively associated with excessive ruminative thinking.
The default mode network operates when we are not focused on a task that demands focus. Activities that fit into psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow state draw our attention and minimize or eliminate rumination. When we actively pay attention to what we are doing, the DMN is less activated.
Ruminative Response Style
Rumination tends to increase the likelihood of depression episodes and protract the time spent in depressed moods. Excessive rumination to depressive symptoms is called a ruminative response style. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema explains that "the ways individuals typically respond to their depressed moods. Specifically, individuals with a ruminative style of responding to depressed moods will have protracted periods of depressed mood" (1991).
Ruminative Response Style to depressions is when behaviors and thoughts focus attention on the depressive symptoms and the implication of those symptoms.
Nolen-Hoeksema explains that symptom focused rumination draws the victim into their ruminations and inhibits any actions that may distract the individual from their spiraling mood.
The ruminations often take the form of overanalyzing current feelings and symptoms and fretting over the impeding depressive episode. The ruminations become self-fulfilling. Past episodes of depression create an over vigilant watch for symptoms, and the over vigilant watch magnifies the meaning of intruding symptoms. A vicious cycle.
Ruminative response style is not synonymous with negative thoughts. Negative thoughts, such as "I'm stupid" may arise from rumination but the negative label is not a necessary ingredient to the rumination to impact depression.
The ruminative response style focuses on the negative emotional state (1991). The key take-away from this concept is that a passing melancholy state may not blow up into full blown depression if we pay relatively little attention to passing mood. The more we fear the implications of the sadness, examine the circumstances for its presence, the more likely it is to commandeer our emotional lives, sucking us down into the emotional black hole of depression and anxiety.
Ruminators and Uncertainty
Uncertainty certainly plays a significant role in rumination. Since a large slice of life is composed of unknown events and unpredictable consequences, uncertainty is a prominent player in cognitions about causes and implications of almost everything we encounter.
Most solutions are probability based, meaning once implemented they may or may not lead to the desired end. Our solution may not be wrong, however, our unique set of circumstances may have spoiled the results.
Nolen-Hoeksema wrote that "content analyses of ruminators' ruminations suggest that many of these thoughts reflect an uncertainty over whether important situations will be manageable or controllable." Nolen-Hoeksema also cited findings that found that ruminators were "more uncertain than non-ruminators about the solutions they generate to complex problems" (2000).
The ever-present uncertainty threatens ruminators because they can't arrive at a fail-proof solution to the problem. The unknown dangerously looms, dangling in menacing webs, around every conceivable conclusion.
In an article I wrote on uncertainty avoidance, I explain, "we live in the fuzzy muck of uncertainty. Science, politics, medical predictions, and nature creep in the dark corners of the unknowable. Our "knowledge" tentatively rests on unproven theories and reasonable guesses... As we develop our ability to live with uncertainty, we more effectively adapt to the dynamic world of change—the world we call home" (Murphy, 2021).
How to Slow Rumination
A basic remedy for excessive rumination is distraction. Basically, this requires activating behaviors that demand sufficient attention to help deactivate the default mode network and engage more attentive functions. "Behavioral activation is a basic coping strategy that may mitigate difficult and discomforting emotions." Behavior activation works by "pushing attention back outside, focusing on helpful behaviors instead of wallowing in painful emotions..." (Murphy, 2021).
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as riding a bike when difficult ruminations start. Since the strength of ruminations is a complex construction between the weight of the event, past experiences with similar experiences, and our individual biological structure and programming of gene expression, we react to distractions differently. While an engaging television show may be sufficient for one, for another the ruminations may overwhelm attention and the show will hardly puncture attention.
Another concern is when attentive states are necessary for safety of an activity but ruminations interfere. For instance, riding a motorcycle on a mountain rode is sufficient for most to pull attention to the exhilarating task at hand. However, for others, the danger of the thrill may be enhanced by partial attention, while the mind continues to ruminate on the possible slight from a coworker last Friday.
We must find an individually stimulating activity that serves the distracting purpose, assisting with disconnecting from the neural networks putting a strangle hold on out thoughts. This may require assistance from a professional and medication.
Michael A. Tompkins, PhD., assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley, promises that "as you learn to ruminate less, you’ll be better able to rise above this rigid pattern of thinking to see things as they truly are. As you ruminate less, your mind will clear and your body will relax. Learning to break free from rumination involves breaking free from a rigid pattern of thinking that has trapped you for years in your anxious response" (2013, page 164).
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Belleau, E., Taubitz, L., & Larson, C. (2015). Imbalance of default mode and regulatory networks during externally focused processing in depression. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(5), 744-751.
Luo, Y., Kong, F., Qi, S., You, X., & Huang, X. (2016). Resting-state functional connectivity of the default mode network associated with happiness. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(3), 516-524.
Murphy, T. F. (2018). Brooding. Flourishing Life Society. Published 9-2018. Accessed 2-21-2022.
Murphy, T. F. (2021) Uncertainty Avoidance. Flourishing Life Society. Published 3-25-2021. Accessed 2-22-2022.
Murphy, T. F. (2021) Behavior Activation. Flourishing Life Society. Published 12-17-2021. Accessed 2-22-2022.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to Depression and Their Effects on the Duration of Depressive Episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 569-582.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The Role of Rumination in Depressive Disorders and Mixed Anxiety/Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504-511.
Rodriguez, Gabriela Sadurni (2020). Rumination: When Your Thoughts Don’t Have an Off Button. The Psychology Group. Accessed 2-22-2022.
Tompkins, Michael A. (2013). Anxiety and Avoidance: A Universal Treatment for Anxiety, Panic, and Fear. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition
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