Ruminating vs. Problem-Solving

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

We may be training the next generation to be unhappy anti-Stoics, Lukanioff and Haidt argue, because the modern fashion for spotting microaggressions and demanding trigger warnings amounts to negative cognitive behavioral training.

Negative repetitive thinking is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders:

Rumination has been found to predict both the onset of depression as well as the continuation of it in a number of studies. In the lab, participants’ symptoms worsen when they are asked or taught to ruminate, according to Ed Watkins, a professor of experimental and applied clinical psychology at the University of Exeter, who has conducted some of the studies.


In addition, researchers have found that the more one dwells on problems in an unhelpful way, the more one gets locked into the pattern, until even small triggers can spark a cycle automatically.


Dr. Watkins and his team at the University of Exeter have found that there are helpful ways to dwell on difficulties, such as to think concretely about a situation and focus on sensory details, how it happened and how to do it differently next time. In contrast, people who engage in unhelpful, depressive or stressful rumination tend to focus on the issue more negatively, globally and abstractly. They often focus on “why” questions such as “Why does this always happen? Why do I always do this?”

In one study, Dr. Watkins trained ruminators and depressed people to think more concretely by giving them daily mental exercises that focused on solving the problem. After one week, they saw significant decreases in self-reported rumination and depression relative to the placebo control group. Later they found similar effects on patients with major depression.


Beyond cognitive retraining, two other techniques can be helpful, experts say — mindfulness, in which people learn to observe but not judge or evaluate themselves, and cognitive behavioral therapy. In the latter, people are taught to evaluate how likely it is that their worry will actually happen, and to reinterpret situations in a more positive way. They learn to problem-solve rather than ruminate, according to Nilly Mor, a professor in the school of education at Hebrew University who studies rumination.

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