Rumination and negativity bias. How and why to stop it.

What is rumination?

Rumination, at its simplest, is a particular way of thinking about things. The thoughts are repetitive, and often the person ruminating believes they are solving a problem or preventing something negative from occurring in the future by weighing up their options.

Ruminating includes

  • going over conversations that have already happened,
  • remembering times in the past when you were embarrassed or did something that you judged yourself harshly for
  • replaying events in your life when you consider you failed
  • going over mistakes that you have made
  • Regretting not doing certain things or choices that you have made

I find there are two fundamental problems with rumination:

  1. It hinders problem-solving, and
  2. Memory is flawed or biased.

How rumination hinders problem-solving

If you solve problems by rumination, you need to ask yourself, do you focus on ‘why’ questions instead of ‘how.’. According to Watkins & Baracaia, 2002 focusing on why something happened to you instead of how do I fix this makes the person a poorer problem solver.

This makes sense to me and is something I try to implement in my life. For example, I experienced ill health for 18 months. If I had spent my time wondering why this happened to me instead of how I could help myself or accept my current situation, it would have hindered my recovery in two ways.

1. Why questions only helped short term if I needed to find a causal link to my ill health, but ruminating endlessly on, for example, why me, would not recover my health but would negatively affect my mood. My mood being involved would be a secondary pain I could have avoided.

2. would stop me from focusing on what I need to do to recover

Flawed recall

Second, the problem with rumination is that it usually involves you replaying events that have occurred in the past. In doing so, you have to recall the event first. You should know that your reliance on memory to reflect events may not be as accurate as you think, as you are at the mercy of negativity bias.

The negativity bias is a psychological construct where, to put it simply, bad is more potent than good. According to Vaish et al., 2008, p.383 ‘Negativity Bias’ refers to “attending to and using negative information more than positive information”, e.g. I could give you praise often, but that one time I criticised you sticks out in your mind, obliterating the praise. You are more likely to remember the bad than the good. The negativity bias is said to have developed from the prehistoric person when everyday survival meant being finely tuned to the negative, as it could be life or death.

However, in the modern-day, we need to be watchful for this bias as it can lead to
ruminating on adverse events more than the positive one
remembered and ruminating more on criticism than praise or compliments
it makes it hard to see the good in everyday experiences, eg

While walking your dog, you meet and say hello to several neighbours, but one did not say hello. You focus on the one person who did not speak.
You get the results of examinations, 5 A’s and 1 B. You focus on the B, your mood drops, and you cannot see the excellence of your overall results.

So if rumination does not help and is subject to negativity bias, what can we do about it? How do you recognise it?

First, you have to be aware of it. Most of our thought processes occur automatically, and you can find yourself deep in rumination without identifying how it started.

Set the alarm every hour to check up on your thoughts. Watch them. Are they good or bad thoughts? Are you chasing after the bad thoughts and hardly noticing anything good?

Checking the accuracy of your thoughts using a model of therapy called CBT will also help. You read more about the model here.

What I do
Often I would lie awake in bed, ruminating. When I ruminate, I ask myself, is this way of thinking helping me or hurting me? Am I going around in circles with the thoughts? What is this style of thinking doing to my mood? Is it interfering in activities, in this case, sleep? What is a more productive thing for me to do or valuable? I read for a while, focusing on something I choose to do, which will not interfere too much with trying to sleep.

We are predisposed to pay more attention to adverse events than positive ones, and ruminating on them affects our mood and does not solve the problem.
Paying attention to your thought processes and actively thinking
differently can help you stop ruminating and reframe life events more productively.

Watkins, Edward & Baracaia, Simona. (2002). Rumination and social problem-solving in depression. Behaviour research and therapy. . DOI:10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00098-5

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