Rumination: Why Do People Obsess Over Things?

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Do you find yourself unable to let go of certain thoughts? This might be why. Frank Lee/ Getty Images

Have you ever been stressed all day because you can’t stop thinking of something unfair that happened that morning? Or the previous week? This human tendency to obsess, trying to work things out in one's mind, is common. If you're like most people, you've had the experience of obsessing over something stressful that happened in your day. It may have been something someone said that hit you in the gut, it may have been a situation where you wish you had the perfect comeback, or it may be a problem that replays itself in your mind over and over with no acceptable solution in sight.

When these thoughts turn more negative and brooding, that's known as rumination. Rumination is as stressful as it is common, in that it takes a situation that has already caused stress and magnifies the stress and the importance of the situation in our minds. It also homes in on the feeling of helplessness we may have in our inability to change what has already happened. We may not be able to re-create the situation in the future and respond with the perfect comeback, response, or solution, and this can make us feel powerless and more stressed. Finally, realizing how much energy we put into ruminating over the situation can lead to even more feelings of frustration as we realize that we've let the situation continue to ruin the day. 

Rumination Basics

Rumination is comprised of two separate variables -- reflection and brooding. The reflection part of rumination can actually be somewhat helpful -- reflecting on a problem can lead you to a solution. Also, reflecting on certain events can help you process strong emotions associated with the issue. However, rumination in general, and brooding in particular, are associated with less proactive behavior and more of a negative mood. Co-rumination, where you rehash a situation with friends until you’ve talked it to death, also brings more stress to both parties once it passes the point of being constructive. In short, if you find yourself constantly replaying something in your mind and dwelling on the injustice of it all, thinking about what you should have said or done, without taking any corresponding action, you’re making yourself feel more stressed. (You can read this article if you're not sure if you're engaging in rumination or healthy emotional processing.) And you are also likely experiencing some of the negative effects of rumination.

The Toll of Rumination

So why do people obsess over things? Rumination starts innocently —it's your mind's attempt to make sense and move on from a frustrating situation.

However, rumination can catch you in a circular, self-perpetuating loop of frustration and stress. When you're dealing with chronic conflicts in your relationships, you may experience chronic stress from too much rumination. It's important to find ways of catching rumination before you get caught up in it and working on handling conflicts in a healthy way.

Rumination can be oddly irresistible and can steal an hour of your attention before you even realize that you’re obsessing again. In addition to dividing your attention, however, rumination has several negative effects.

  • Stress: Several bestselling books on mindfulness are currently being touted as excellent stress-relief resources: The Power of Now, A New Earth, and Wherever You Go, There You Are, for example. One of the major reasons that these books relieve stress so well is that they provide examples of how to drastically cut down on rumination, which leads to a stressed state of mind. In fact, studies show that rumination can raise your cortisol levels, signifying a physical response to stress resulting from rumination.
  • Negative Frame of Mind: Not surprisingly, rumination is said to have a negative affect, or produce more depressed, unhappy mood. Not only is this unpleasant in itself, but from what we know about optimism and pessimism, this brings a whole new set of consequences.
  • Less Proactive Behavior: While people may get into a ruminating frame of mind with the intention of working through the problem and finding a solution, research has shown that excessive rumination is associated with less proactive behavior, higher disengagement from problems, and an even more negative state of mind as a result. That means that rumination can contribute to a downward spiral of negativity.
  • Self Sabotage: Research has linked rumination with negative coping behaviors, like binge eatingSelf-sabotaging types of coping behavior can create more stress, perpetuating a negative and destructive cycle.
  • Hypertension: A link has also been found between rumination and hypertension. Rumination may prolong the stress response, which increases the negative impact of stress on the heart. Because of the health risks involved in hypertension, it’s particularly important to combat rumination and find healthy strategies for dealing with stress and staying centered. (See this article for more on relieving high blood pressure).

Overcoming Rumination

So why do people obsess over things? It appears that different people obsess over things for different reasons, and some people are more prone to it than others. Some people want to make sense of a situation, but can't seem to understand or accept it, so they keep replaying. Other people want reassurance that they were right (especially if they feel on an unconscious level that they were wrong). Some people are trying to solve the problem or prevent similar things from happening in the future, but can't figure out how. And others may just want to feel heard and validated, or want to feel justified in absolving themselves of responsibility by 'playing the victim,' and find themselves repeating their stories ad nauseum. Ultimately, it matters less why people obsess over things, and more how they can stop.

Here are a few ideas on how to catch yourself and refocus:

  • Time Limit
    • It can be helpful to get support and validation from your friends, but too much discussion of wrongs perpetrated by others can lead to a dynamic in your relationships that's negative and gossipy and leads more to reinforcing the frustration of the situation than to finding solutions and closure. If you're seeking support from friends, you can secretly set yourself a time limit on how many minutes you'll allow yourself to devote to talking about the problem and your feelings around it, before focusing on a solution. Then brainstorm solutions with your friend, or on your own in a journal.
  • Open Mind
    • It's been suggested by more than a few therapists that what really tweaks us in others may be a mere reflection of what we don't accept in ourselves. When you think about what the other person did to make you angry, can you try and draw on a similar experience in yourself to help better appreciate their perspective and the reasons behind what they did? Even if you don't necessarily agree with them, can you empathize? The loving kindness meditation can be a wonderful tool here for forgiveness and letting go and can be a great combat for rumination.
  • Set Boundaries
    • Remember the wonderful phrase "First time, shame on you; the second time, shame on me." It perfectly describes responsibility and the importance of setting boundaries, and if nothing else allows you to use each encounter to learn something about yourself and the other person so you can change the way things go in the future. Look at what happened with the eye of change -- not to blame the other person for hurting you, but to come up with solutions that will prevent the same situation from occurring twice. Where might you say no earlier, or protect yourself more in the future? Rather than remaining hurt or angry, come from a place of strength and understanding.

It may take some practice, but you can change your habitual thought patterns, and this is a prime situation where such a change can transform your experience of stress. It may not happen instantly, but soon you may no longer obsess over things, and experience less emotional stress as a result. Just remember to be patient with yourself and keep your focus forward, and you'll feel less stress in no time.