One reason that we may be primed to ruminate: Our memories are linked by powerful emotional associations, says Ilardi. When
an unpleasant event puts us in a despondent mood, it’s easier to recall other times when we’ve felt terrible. That can set
the stage for a ruminator to work herself into a downward spiral. (She stews over a fight with her spouse, creates a mental
catalog of every marital disappointment back to the time when he was late to their rehearsal dinner, then wonders why she
has always picked irresponsible guys.) “It creates a distorted-lens effect,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. “We see only what our negative
mood wants us to see—the events in our past that are negative, the events in our present that are negative, the things that
could go wrong in the future.”
And yet the more we play a problem over and over in our minds, typically the less equipped we are to fix it. Rumination ramps up activity in the brain’s stress-response circuitry, which can eventually sap motivation. Research at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, found that when subjects were presented with a challenge and asked to develop solutions, the ruminators lacked confidence in their plans and were less committed to them. Another way ruminators may sabotage themselves: According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness ($16, amazon.com), a ruminator might be so preoccupied by a perceived slight that she misses important cues in a business meeting and ends up performing poorly, which reinforces her concern that she’s not up to snuff. Rumination has also been linked to other negative behaviors, including alcohol abuse and binge eating.
So why do some of us fall prey to this self-defeating mental behavior? There’s no definitive answer. Generally, according to researchers, rumination is more widely reported among women than men. The women in studies conducted by Nolen-Hoeksema were less likely than men to believe that they had control over negative emotions or important events in their lives. Women were also more likely to accept undue responsibility for others’ well-being—a personality trait called unmitigated communion, often a common characteristic of ruminators.
Unfortunately, breaking the cycle isn’t as easy as just snapping out of it. “There’s no off switch for rumination,” says Bruce Hubbard, the director of the Cognitive Health Group and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. “Simply telling yourself to stop is like pushing a beach ball under the water. The harder you push, the farther it will pop up.” But there are a few strategies that, applied with patience, can keep overthinking from overtaking your life.