Well-Being//

Knowing the Difference Between Reflection and Rumination Can Help You Better Manage Your Negative Thoughts

Reflection will brighten your future. Rumination will keep you stuck in the past.

Courtesy of PM Images / Getty Images
Courtesy of PM Images / Getty Images

Think back to the last time you kept replaying a negative situation in your head. Maybe you said something you wished you could take back, or made a mistake at work you couldn’t seem to forget. Now, recall how you thought about the situation. Did you take some time to process what happened, and look to the future with the realization that mistakes can have positive outcomes? Or did you obsess over one moment, dredging up every reason why things went wrong? 

If you did the latter, you fell into the trap of rumination — or as Jonathan Alpert, M.S., a psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days , tells Thrive, you denied yourself the opportunity to reflect and grow. “Reflection is the processing of experiences with purpose, and with the goal of gaining insight, learning, and ultimately self-improvement,” Alpert says. “By contrast, rumination is when someone thinks about something over and over again, without purpose.” Although reflection and rumination have some intrinsic differences — reflection is purposeful and goal-oriented, whereas Alpert notes there is an obsessional component to rumination —  it can be all too easy to let healthy contemplation transform into compulsive overthinking. 

There’s good reason to make sure self-reflection doesn’t turn into destructive thinking: Research published in Personality and Individual Differences shows that rumination is associated with anger, depression, and anxiety, and can affect sleep quality. 

If you instead make the effort to engage in self-reflection, you’ll experience the opposite. Self-reflection is a tool that helps us approach life with a growth mindset and develop a greater sense of identity, according to Makena Schultz Neal, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University. And when it’s done the right way, reflecting on a negative event (for a limited period of time, that is) can actually help with emotion regulation and well-being, according to research published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass. “To break through ruminations, know that by changing the way you think, you can change the way you feel,” Alpert says. Changing the way you think is no easy task, but you can start by simply asking yourself a few questions. 

What makes you ruminate? 

Knowing the kinds of situations or circumstances that cause you to ruminate can help you prepare a coping strategy. Edward R. Watkins, Ph.D., a professor of experimental and applied clinical psychology at the University of Exeter, writes in Psychology Today that some “people report that changes in their feelings and physical sensations can be warning signs and triggers for worry and rumination — for example, beginning to feel tense, hot, and stressed, or starting to feel down and low, with a sinking feeling in the stomach.” For others, it can be a time of day, location, or even a specific part of a routine that triggers rumination. Developing an awareness of what these cues look like for you is the first step in overcoming them.

How do you feel about this situation, and how do you want to feel? 

A big difference between reflection and rumination is that reflecting will probably leave you feeling more positive and hopeful, while ruminating will leave you feeling defeated and stuck in the past. Alpert recommends asking yourself how you want to feel about a situation. More often than not, the way you want to feel and how you actually feel when you ruminate are drastically different. Identifying the discrepancy in your emotions and the kind of headspace you’d like to achieve can you help you decipher what exactly needs to be changed.

What is a healthier way to think about this? 

Ask yourself if you see any benefit in your ruminations, Alpert suggests. The answer is very likely no, which can help prompt you to move on, and move towards a healthier way of framing your thoughts. Research published in Personality Processes and Individual Difference finds that self-affirmation, or stating or thinking about a positive aspect of yourself or a value you hold, can help regulate ruminative thinking. For example, if you are dwelling and ruminating on the fact that you were late to work this morning, try telling yourself “I am a hard-working employee,” and then do your best to be on time tomorrow.

What actions can you take to stop damaging thoughts? 

It’s important to think of actionable steps to stop rumination in its tracks. Although it is not recommended as a long-term coping strategy, positive distractions can help alleviate ruminative thoughts in the short-term. Research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science asserts that short periods of positive distractions  — think activities like jogging or spending time with friends — can improve mood, quality of thinking, and problem-solving. However, the researchers emphasize that chronically suppressing thoughts, especially if you suffer from depressive symptoms, is not a healthy behavioral pattern. More effective long-term coping strategies for ruminative thinking include journaling about your thoughts, and restructuring your goals so they are more attainable. “Start to think about solutions, and move from the victim to victor mentality,” Alpert says. 

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