Reflection is good, brooding is not. But how do you break the cycle of negative thinking? It is great that human beings can reflect and learn from experience, but that is not the same as destructively dwelling on things.

We all have ups and downs, and we all find it difficult to get over some things. But to keep revisitng our perceived failures only leads to more of the same. Each time we re-live an experience it becomes more difficult to let it go.

The problem is that brooding, or ruminating, is pernicious; unless it is nipped in the bud it can become a sweetly seductive habit. It may feel as though thinking about something in this way will allow us to purge it and move on, but it doesn’t, the opposite happens. Going over an incident time and again actually reinforces it and embeds it into our thinking. The more we do it the less likely we are to be able to forget it. We are rehearsing failure.

It seems too that we have a natural inclination to re-hash the bad stuff in this way, never the good stuff. Left to its own devices the mind just seems to latch on to ‘what went wrong’, and never, ‘what went right’.

Of course this is stronger in some people than others. It all has to do with what is known as our attributional style; the way we explain to ourselves why things happen to us. And how we explain things to ourselves is one of the underpinning causes of depression, so watch out! In my therapy practice, when I see people suffering from depression the most important thing as a first step, they often say, is to stop the intrusive and recurrent thoughts.

Simply change the brooding habit

If you want to change a brooding habit, you can. There are plenty of ways you can break the cycle of rumination. One very simple way is to start to re-educate your thinking style by actively choosing to change perspective. For example, take a few minutes each day to list your successes. This takes a little practice but it is worth the effort; make a list, and remember as success can be as small as getting to work on time or doing someone a favour.

Mindfulness and relaxation is also useful for many people. We can only concentrate on one thing at a time and mindfulness requires just that. Or you can learn to stop a thought by immediately doing something else; distracting yourself, specially effective if it involves physical activity as well as a change of focus.

The key thing here is that we can all learn to change habits we don’t like or want in ourselves, however strongly they are embedded. You can learn to stop brooding by yourself, or you can find a therapist.

See also

The Logic of Depression

7 Ways to Change your Thinking