Everyone suffers occasionally from ruminations – recurring thoughts about the causes and consequences of distressing topics. Ruminating can interfere with your ability to concentrate, sleep well, or control spiralling anxiety.

What can we learn from the experts who study rumination, a common feature of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder?

Not all rumination is counterproductive. Denise Sloan at Boston University divides ruminators into two categories. Brooders are plagued by negative, abstract thoughts. They focus on their distress and on the problem itself rather than possible solutions. Reflective ponderers, on the other hand, feel only minimal distress as they turn inward to try to solve the problem.

We adopt one of four thinking response styles when distressed, say experts. The first is to deny or avoid thinking about the problem; second to ruminate (Sloan’s “brooders”); third to look for ways to relieve distress (“reflective ponderers”); fourth to seek social support. Which is most useful in our current circumstances?

The answer depends on the problem. If there’s clearly no answer yet – for example, exactly when a vaccine will come to the market – it’s best either to avoid thinking about the problem altogether, or at least learn to think about it without becoming unduly upset. 

If you’re ruminating about something that’s potentially solvable, for example, how to obtain food while self-isolating, reflective pondering is your best approach. Start by brainstorming: make a list of all possible solutions. Then rank them, and try them out one by one.

Whatever the problem, the least useful strategy is ruminating. It solves nothing and worse it maintains low mood and increases anxiety.

Finally, although it may sound trivial, how you refer to yourself can really make a positive difference. Avoid saying you’re anxious or worried. Instead, call yourself a problem solver.

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