Brooding, thinking repetitively about a situation real or imagined, is a common human activity, so it’s probably one of yours.
Brooding has got a bad name as a gateway to emotional problems. But a review of the research suggests that everything depends on what you are brooding about. Brooding on negative thoughts is bad for us and brooding on positive events is good.
People brood on buses and trains, in their cars, at the table, walking, lying in bed, watching television or just sitting in a chair lost to the world. Maybe we brood less with smartphones to distract us but it still takes up a lot of our time and attention.
Some brooding is good for us, as I mentioned above. Brooding on an issue with the purpose of solving a specific problem could make life easier in the future. One very successful business person quoted in a book I have now forgotten, put two hours aside every week in order to think about very aspect of his business. That was a form of creative brooding.
You can also go over and over a pleasant memory or even over a good experience you expect to have in the future. This can boost your sense of well-being and positivity.
The other type of brooding is what I often describe as rumination and it’s the one you want to be on your guard against. In this, you go over your faults, regrets, and resentments. Instead of planning for the future you “catastrophise” or “awfulise” about how bad it will be if such-and-such a thing happens. You might brood about how unfair the world is or about things your partner said in the last argument you had.
This kind of rumination can have outcomes that are really not good for you. For instance, brooding after an argument can prevent your blood pressure from returning to normal when it is over.
Rumination can also mean that instead of doing something that could make you feel better, you sit there making yourself feel even more miserable. Worry is linked to anxiety, depression and heart disease. It also seems to make our immune system less effective.
What to do about this?
One is to accept that you don’t have to follow the negative stories in your head when they start up. You can switch your thinking or, perhaps more effective, you can switch your actions by, say, getting up and going for a walk.
You can also deliberately spend more time going over good memories or anticipating pleasant future events. Sometimes when I go for a walk I deliberately think about something positive I believe is going to happen in the future. Since we cannot really predict the next five minutes, the event may not happen, or may not happen in that way but I’ve still got my boost of positivity.
Another method is to apply the mindfulness approach of allowing thoughts to pass by while you get on with whatever you’re doing. Say your thought is about something stupid you said yesterday and that you can’t do anything about any more. Instead of beating yourself up endlessly over it, acknowledge the thought and its accompanying emotion and turn your attention to whatever requires it. In this way, you let it go its own way without getting into ages of comment and analysis. Gradually the thought fades.
Because we tend to have a negativity bias, probably as part of our evolved survival system, we often find it easier to fall into negative rumination than into the positive version. Indeed negativity, unhelpful as it is, can even feel attractive. So you have to make a real effort to nudge yourself towards the positive. But when I make that effort I am always glad I did so. It’s good for me and moreover, it’s more fun.
If you'd like to know more about the research, read Prof Suzanne Segerstrom's article The structure and consequences of repetitive thought on the website of the American Psychological Association.
Padraig O'Morain's (firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain) latest book is Kindfulness. He is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email