Photo Credit: Getty Images
Quick: What seemingly innocuous habit can easily set you up for depression?
No, it’s not procrastination, smoking or your secret java addiction. It’s “rumination,” a term psychologists use to describe a tendency to go over and over a problem or stressful situation, playing it endlessly like an old-fashioned LP—and a scratched-up one at that.
Rumination is particularly common among women. Whether you rant and rave about an upsetting event, chew it over in your mind as you endlessly examine it from every possible angle (in the mistaken belief that this will help you find a magic solution) or continuously rehash what happened to anyone who will listen—you’re on notice: You could be thinking yourself into depression.
Here’s how it happens:
“Research shows that rumination leads you to regard situations in your life with increasing negativity, because when you’re in a distressed mood, negative thoughts and negative memories are more accessible, and you use them to interpret what’s happening now,” explains Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University and author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. “This interferes with your ability to solve problems, so that they persist or get worse, creating more worry and stress—a downward spiral that can contribute to depression.”
In fact, a new study from the University of Muenster in Germany found that rumination impairs the decision-making process, which can contribute to depression by making you feel stuck. Adding insult to misery, the rumination habit can also take a toll on your relationships: Friends and loved ones may become irritated with you because they don’t understand why you can’t just move on or get over it. “
So, social support dwindles over time, which gives people who ruminate more to ruminate about and they feel more depressed,” Nolen-Hoeksema says. Not surprisingly, rumination can also raise your blood pressure and lead to anxiety, sleep problems, or food or alcohol abuse. The good news, according to Nolen-Hoeksema, whose latest book is The Power of Women: Harness Your Unique Strengths at Home, at Work, and in Your Community, is that you can learn to break the rumination cycle in a few simple steps. When you find yourself stuck on a negative thought:
1.Schedule a “worry hour.” Set aside a time in the late afternoon or early evening (but not right before bed!) to think about the problem you’re stewing over.
2.Distract yourself with a pleasant activity—like exercising with a friend (tennis, anyone?), going to a movie or reading an engrossing book.
3.If the problem continues to eat at you before worry hour comes around, use thought-stopping techniques to keep yourself in distraction mode: Visualize a stop sign, breathe slowly and deeply. Consciously choose not to dwell on the negative but to focus on something pleasant instead. Having positive distractions will lift your mood and break the cycle of repetitive thought, Nolen-Hoeksema says. “Even more important, it improves your thinking, making it more positive and balanced.”
4.When it’s time to revisit the issue, swing into problem-solving mode: Write down exactly what the problem is or how you think the situation needs to change, then rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you desire. The next step is to brainstorm what you can do to move toward that goal, and then come up with the most feasible, useful steps you could take and formulate a concrete plan of action; sometimes it’s helpful to get the input of a trusted friend. If you’ve been fretting about being stuck in your career, for example, you might start looking for courses to improve your job skills. If you’ve been obsessing about the tension between you and your spouse, you might decide to talk to him about it or suggest going to a counselor together. The idea is to get the issue out of your head and to translate it into something you can do something about.
Using this formula will help free you from the rumination habit for good—and feel better and more empowered in your life 24/7.