At some point in our lives, we've all been guilty of mulling over an issue for a little too long. Whether this is triggered by a negative comment made by a manager at work, a failed romantic relationship or a fallout with a close relative, at times it can seem almost impossible not to constantly go over things in your mind, trying to figure out what went wrong.
While a certain amount of self-reflection can help you see what improvements you can make to your life in the future, it has been found that on the whole repeatedly going over a distressful situation in your mind, also known in psychology as ‘rumination', is very detrimental to mental health. Research suggests that chronic rumination can trigger problems such as anxiety and depression.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hridubai.com), says, "Rumination is when an individual thinks repetitively and deeply about a situation, its causes and its consequences. In psychology we often use it to say that a person is ruminating about negative thoughts or feelings. This is only because we do not see individuals who are ruminating about positive thoughts or experiences."
Why is dwelling on issues unhealthy?
Researchers have found that dwelling on a situation only serves to conjure up more negative thoughts, which then becomes a cycle. Ironically, going over a problem repeatedly in your mind only leads you to feel helpless and paralyses your ability to solve problems.
"The research is consistent: people who are ‘ruminators' tend to have more problems with anxiety and depression," says Dr Afridi. "These individuals may hold more grudges and let problems dwell within them. When a person is continuously thinking about a negative situation that happened in their professional and personal life, it can lead to these two mental-health disorders. Thinking about the ins and outs of the negative situation results in the person thinking negatively about themselves and others and as we know in cognitive psychology, negative thoughts equal negative emotions and can also lead to unhealthy relationships," she says.
Dr Costas Papageorgiou, a clinical psychologist who has done extensive research into depressive rumination and written a number of related publications, including Depressive Rumination: Nature, Theory and Treatment (Wiley), goes on to explain how research has found that people who ruminate chronically can also experience impaired motivation, concentration and other mental abilities.
Why are people reluctant to let go?
Dwelling on situations can be toxic and unhelpful - so why do we do it?
Dr Papageorgiou explains how research he has conducted with his colleagues has shown that those most likely to ruminate have erroneous perceptions about the usefulness of this process. So people who are most prone to ruminate believe that going over a problem repeatedly is advantageous in helping them deal with their problems.
"In the face of stress or other difficulties, some people are likely to engage in prolonged periods of rumination because they believe that ‘rumination can help me solve problems, understand my feelings and prevent future mistakes or failures'. The result is that people remain ‘locked in' this process and maintain their negative mood or develop full-blown episodes of clinical depression," says Dr Papageorgiou.
His research also showed that women are more likely to resort to rumination than men for a multitude of reasons, including the way the female brain is organised, social circumstances, social power or influence and dependence.
How can rumination lead to depression?
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of Psychology at Yale University, US, is a leading researcher in the area of rumination and believes that people who dwell on issues are more likely both to develop symptoms of depression and to be diagnosed with the disorder. This, she says, occurs because individuals focus on negative thoughts, which in turn make them feel more depressed.
"Our research shows that when people ruminate while they are in a depressed mood, they remember more negative things that happened to them in the past, they interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and they are more hopeless about the future," she says.
"Rumination also interferes with good problem-solving, in part because you are focusing only on the negative, and also because you become immobilised and can't move forward to do something about your problems. Finally, when people ruminate for an extended time, their family members and friends become frustrated and may pull away their support."
People respond to their own negative thoughts and feelings in a number of ways. Dr Papageorgiou says research has found rumination is a common form of mental and emotional coping, and can be falsely perceived as a key ‘coping strategy' by individuals who suffer from clinical depression.
"Given the consequences of rumination, symptoms of depression become more severe and longer lasting," he explains. "Not only can rumination make depressive symptoms worse and prolonged, but it can also lead to future episodes of depression even after people have recovered from it. However, the good news is people can learn strategies to put into practice and reduce their likelihood of ruminating in response to negative thoughts and feelings, and prevent future episodes of depression."
Bring in the professionals
Dr Costas Papageorgiou advises that if you are currently suffering from clinical depression or have had previous episodes of depression, you should consider seeking professional help from an appropriately qualified and experienced psychologist or psychiatrist.
Dr Afridi agrees, and goes on to explain how a lot of what a psychologist does is help people sort through the difficult thoughts and emotions, and try to find other ways of looking at the problem.
"Sometimes our mind gets stuck in a rut, we think the same things over and over again, and we need a fresh and healthy perspective from an objective observer," she says.
Five ways to break the cycle
There are a number of effective strategies to stop ourselves from obsessing extensively over a situation. We asked the specialists to come up with some practical advice you can use whenever you feel yourself over-thinking a distressing situation.
1. Engage in problem-solving
Professor Nolen-Hoeksema says the first step is to engage in activities thatcan fill your mind with other thoughts, preferably positive ones. "For example, you might play tennis with a friend, or engage in some hobby you really like. Some people find meditating or praying helpful. The main thing is to get your mind off your ruminations for a time so they die out and don't have a grip on your mind," she says. "But then when you are thinking more clearly, you should identify at least one concrete thing you could do to overcome the problem(s) you are ruminating about. For example, if you are ruminating about your relationship with your spouse, call a trusted friend and talk to her about your concerns to get her perspective."
While distraction is recommended for breaking the over-thinking cycle, Dr Afridi says it is important that at some stage you go back and look at the issues that have caused you distress. "Ask yourself: what is the lesson in this? What is this experience or person teaching me about myself? All emotions tell us about ourselves and what is important to us, so use that experience and the associated emotions and thoughts as a teacher. If you see the negative experience as a gift or a teacher, you will come to peace with it faster," she explains.
Dr Papageorgiou says that once you are able to recognise when you have started to dwell on an issue, you should ask yourself to take no further immediate action (in other words, do nothing about your thoughts and emotions). He suggests setting a time later in the day - but not too close to bedtime - when you will go back and revisit the issue.
"When this time arrives, you can then spend 10-15 minutes generating actual solutions to your problems, but only if the need arises. If you do not feel the need to think about your problems at all, then you should not engage in this process." He says while you are waiting for the designated time to come, you should fill your day with pleasant, stimulating activities.
Dr Afridi says that at times our thoughts seem more real and plausible when they are in our heads, but once we actually write them out, it becomes apparent that some of them are actually distortions. "They may be assumptions, or magnifying only the negative aspects of the situation," she explains. "Writing about our thoughts and experiences also helps make them more manageable because we can see them in a concrete way in front of us, so it's easier to address first things first."
5. Try to see the situation from the other person's perspective
Dr .Afridi advises you imagine you were in a court of law and you had to defend the other person's point of view or the ‘positive' aspect of the situation. What would you say? Write it all out or verbalise this to a friend.