Brooding (also known as rumination) is defined by a habitual focus on distressing feelings and the events that caused them. You might replay the time your boss insulted you in a meeting making you feel angry and embarrassed, you might replay the conversation you had with your romantic partner they day they broke up with you and how it broke your heart, or you might replay the argument you had with your best friends that made you feel rejected and betrayed.
While it is natural to reflect on upsetting experiences, brooding involves replaying the same scenes in your mind and reliving the emotional distress you felt at the time. Once you are in the habit of ruminating, the urge to brood can be easy to trigger and difficult to ignore. The problem is that over the past few years, numerous studies have demonstrated a strong link between habitual brooding and depression:
1. Brooding promotes feelings of passivity and helplessness: Brooding about emotionally distressing experiences from the past can make you feel helpless and passive because you feel all the same negative feelings but you cannot do anything about them. Both passivity and helplessness are strongly related to depression and are indeed symptoms of a depressive mindset.
2. Habitual brooding colors your perceptions of the world: The more time you spend thinking about distressing events the more negative and pessimistic your outlook can become. Negative outlooks and mindsets, coupled with feelings of passivity and helplessness are strongly associated with clinical depression.
3. Brooding creates a cycle of sadness: Replaying distressing events only intensifies any underlying feelings of sadness you already have. In one study, habitual brooders who were asked to reflect upon their current feelings for eight minutes (in a neutral environment) became significantly sadder while non-habitual brooders experienced no change in mood . In turn, feeling sad can trigger further brooding, thus creating a cycle of sadness and brooding that reinforce one another.
4. Habitual brooding can impact your self-esteem and sense of identity: Your self-esteem and identity are strongly linked to your internal experience of the world. By devoting too much time to brooding about distressing events and feelings you risk defining yourself as a victim or a tragic figure (obviously some people are victims of true tragedies, which involves an entirely different set of psychological dynamics). Such negative self-perceptions are also associated with greater risk for depression.
5. Brooding prevents emotional healing: Distressing experiences often leave emotional wounds. Brooding over such experiences is akin to picking at emotional scabs in that doing so triggers emotional distress, "reopens the wound" and prevents it from healing. To heal you must first stop the cycle of brooding and then "treat" the emotional wounds that underlie it (for example, by applying emotional first aid techniques).
How to Disrupt the Cycle of Brooding and Rumination
The best way to disrupt a cycle of brooding is to use distraction to refocus your mental energies. As soon as you catch yourself brooding or ruminating, force yourself to engage in an absorbing activity for 2-3 minutes (such as a crossword puzzle, Candy Crush, Scrabble, or a memory task such as recalling the order of songs on a playlist). Studies show that even a brief distraction can disrupt the brooding cycle and reduce the secretion of stress hormones into your bloodstream .
In addition, give thought to whether you need to "treat" the emotional wounds associated with the distressing events in question. Many psychological injuries such as rejection, failure, guilt, loneliness, and others can nag at us months and years after the fact and when they do, it is a sign you should not ignore them.