Mental rumination has given rise to a whole series of questions among psychologists. How is it developing? Is a traumatic event necessary or can it arise endogenously for no apparent reason? Can we control its appearance or does it always occur at impromptu times? Is it related to certain clinical disorders (obsessive disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder) or does it concern the entire population?  How to stop mental rumination?

Summary of the article:

1 – The individual facing extreme emotions

2 – A socio-cognitive model of ruminations

3 – Fixed Ideas and Black Ideas

4 – Does mental rumination have a gender?

5 – Can We Get Rid of Bad Thoughts?

It is in this order that our scientific discovery will focus on: the individual between emotions, fixed ideas, and black ideas. Before continuing, let’s just remember what it is mental rumination.

They are called “black ideas”, “obsessions” or “ruminations”. They often occur after an emotional shock. They haunt the mind for days or months. How can we explain the irruption of these fixed ideas into our daily lives? How to cope? Many research and psychological theories try to answer these questions.

Everyone has had this experience. This comes after a serious argument with a co-worker or a family member. The conflict is violent and the break brutal. During the days and nights that follow, our spirit is invaded by this story. It’s hard to concentrate on your work, to sleep. The same ideas come back to mind: the scene of the argument, the face of our interlocutor, the answers we would have liked to make, the consequences of this break, etc.

This is an example of what is commonly called “black ideas”. Psychologists speak of “mental rumination”. It occurs in the daily lives of all of us, before fading quickly. It takes a dramatic, invasive way in people who have suffered traumatic shock, depression or people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

1 – The Individual Facing Extreme Emotions

In the days following a traumatic event, an assault for theft, for example, the person is often prey to obsessive thoughts that come to torment her. She goes back and forth indefinitely, imagines what he could have done, reproaches herself for not reacting differently, etc.

The psychologist Mardi J. Horowitz, a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder, was one of the first to take an interest in these mental ruminations. “Intrusive” thoughts are manifested first by the involuntary return of memories related to the event: the victim of an accident does not stop reliving the same scenes? Shock, hurt, the vision of the blood. Another striking sign of mental rumination is precisely the attempt of the person to repel these thoughts.

For Mr. J. Horowitz, these intrusive thoughts do not necessarily belong to the pathology but are rather necessary to the psychological balance of the individual. Following an intense emotional shock, our mental apparatus sets up responses aimed at rehabilitating normal life. From this point of view, the repetition of ruminations is explained by a need for completeness of the organism. The traumatic event (aggression for example) comes up against our current mental patterns, our thought routines, and our lifestyle.

Now, accident or aggression is a sudden break in the normal course of events. The need for completeness manifests itself in repeated attempts to bring new information into line with pre-existing mental patterns. As long as incompleteness remains, intrusive ruminations persist. The attempt to reestablish a kind of mental harmony will be progressively realized by a double process. In less serious situations, this attempt will be made by assimilation, that is, by integrating the new information into a prior mental schema. If the rupture is deeper, a process of accommodation will be necessary: this time, it will be a question of adapting old mental schemas to new information.

In a case of aggression, the victim may try to gradually insert the violent memory into his mental world, which is usually more peaceful. Gradually, memories fade and are “absorbed” in the usual thinking. But if the gap is too great between reality and mental schemas, accommodation of schemas to the new reality becomes essential. Intrusive thoughts will occur as long as the discordance between mental patterns and the memory of the event is not eliminated.

M.J. Horowitz insists on the dynamics of mental ruminations over time. After the irruption of unpleasant thoughts, control processes are put in place to protect our mental apparatus. There is a regular oscillation between moments of full awareness of the reality of the event and others characterized by a denial of reality. It would be precisely this oscillation between moments of confrontation and those of periods of avoidance (as much of the places where the event took place as of the associated emotions) which would allow, in the long term, to recover from a painful episode of this type. . Finally, M. J. Horowitz has shown in laboratory studies that the ruminations that occur in traumatic situations are based on the same mechanisms that occur in everyday life, even if they are of greater intensity and frequency.

2 – A Sociocognitive Model of Ruminations

The model proposed by psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman has a number of similarities to that of M.J. Horowitz. The major contribution of this researcher from the University of Massachusetts concerns our fundamental belief systems that the traumatic event comes to disrupt. After an accident, a dismissal, an assault, the disappearance of a loved one …, our vision of the world undergoes a kind of collapse process. Three types of “basic beliefs” are brutally challenged.

*** The benevolence of the surrounding world

The first belief concerns the benevolence of the surrounding world. Although many people think that the “outside world” is imperfect (“too much suffering, injustice, etc.”), most people think that their world is rather indulgent towards them. At least he was so far! Then suddenly comes an event that contradicts this deep-rooted belief in itself. The assaulted person is brutally confronted with an unfair, heinous, cruel act. The surrounding world was rather satisfying, now he has become malicious!

*** The idea that the world makes sense

The second belief is based on the idea that the world makes sense. Everyone unconsciously thinks that the events of life take place according to established and easily understandable rules. Thus, one implicitly refers to a theory of a just world in which everyone gets what they deserve, and that acting in a certain way leads to certain results.

For example, a well-established pattern is that a person who does regular physical exercise is likely to stay healthy. That this person is contracting a serious illness and our belief in a coherent and just world is collapsing.

*** Self-worth

The third belief is about one’s own worth. Everyone believes more or less in his good fortune and thinks that he is “worth” something. The traumatic shock leads to a sudden collapse of self-esteem. People who are assaulted, dismissed or suffering from an illness have their self-esteem drop.

Let’s take the example of aggression. The three basic beliefs suddenly appear to be obsolete: “The world around me is hostile, unjust, insane, and I am worthless. This invalidation signals the profound disruption of the individual’s referral systems, as well as the need for active treatment of emotional information in order to rebuild them gradually.

R. Janoff-Bulman’s model postulates, like M. Horowitz’s, that regular alternation between confrontation and avoidance is a necessary condition for adaptation. Each new reminder of the event would allow a reduction in the intensity of the unpleasant emotions associated with a gradual extinction of the emotional response: a sort of habituation.

The ultimate goal of this treatment of emotion is to gradually include the traumatic event in a new universe of beliefs. Some factors would play a facilitating role in accelerating adaptation. For example, the emotional support of the entourage allows the traumatized individual to deny his new belief in a malevolent world.

Finally, R Janoff-Bulman shows the utility of a meaning-seeking process in which the individual tries to understand why he personally felt certain emotional states that occurred after a particular event.

3 – Fixed Ideas and Black Ideas

Intrusive thoughts are characteristic of some obsessive disorders. Thus, the person who wonders if she has closed the door of her house and returns to check, not one, as we sometimes do, but five, ten or twenty times in a row! As soon as she moves away from her home, doubt, anguish invades her. Only a new audit allows him to temporarily calm his anxiety.

In some cases, intrusive thoughts have conjugal functions. Some people with obsessive disorders are overwhelmed by bizarre ideas like, “If I count in multiples of two as long as possible, then I will pass my hiring test. ”

Canadian psychologist Stanley Rachman has investigated the nature of these ruminations. It appears that intrusive thoughts are not unique to patients with obsessive disorders. Each of us can know regularly. Today, at least 80% of the general population is considered to have obsessions that are similar in content to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. On the other hand, intrusive ruminations are much more frequent and intense in pathological cases. In addition, obsessional subjects have a much harder time dismissing these ideas than others. They are more disturbed by their appearance and try more often, in vain, to remove them mentally.

S.J. Rachman was particularly interested in the types of responses put in place to deal with ruminations. Some reactions lead to the maintenance or even the reinforcement of the frequency of the ruminations. This is true of the “metacognition” that some patients develop about their disorders. In the face of a haunting idea, the patient gets angry or despairs. He no longer reacts simply to the emotional event, but to the appearance of his thoughts. According to S.J. Rachman, metacognition is a good predictor of the persistence of intrusive thoughts. The more intense the emotional reactions (anger, sadness) are to the appearance of these thoughts, the more difficult the latter will be to dismiss from our minds.

Studies on the effects of mood on the recall provide an explanation for this result. They indicate that a depressive state greatly diminishes the individual’s ability to recover positive emotional material and, at the same time, facilitates the recall of negative episodes. Consequently, the development of a state of emotional distress would contribute to the recall and the maintenance of the mental rumination of the negative events.

4 – Does Mental Rumination Have a Gender?

Depression is another important area of research on ruminations. We know that the frequency of depression is twice as high for women than for men.

According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, this difference could be explained by a mental strategy more specific to women, in the face of a state of stress, an emotional shock or a dysphoric mood.

When a person is prey to his inner torments, a first possible way of response is that of distraction. It’s all about “changing your ideas” through a recreational activity (sport, cinema, discussion with friends). The second answer is that of rumination, which consists in worrying about the symptoms, the causes and the consequences of one’s depressive state (“I have the feeling of having knotted stomach, is it serious?”, ” Why do I want to cry so much? ” However, there is ample evidence that women are more likely to engage in mental rumination activities, while men are more likely to choose a distraction strategy. This preferential choice for ruminative responses would explain the prevalence of depression in women. A ruminative response would help to maintain or reinforce the initial depressive state.

S. Nolen-Hoeksema has been able to support this hypothesis by both laboratory studies and prospective field studies. So in one study, chance had it that she interviewed a group of students two weeks before a spectacular earthquake in California. Students completed questionnaires about their level of depression, as well as how they responded to the onset of depressive states (ruminative response vs. distractive response). This group was re-examined ten days after the cataclysm, and again seven weeks later. Four factors were thought to affect the level of depression: initial depression, objective stress level (that is, measured by outside observers), frequency of ruminative responses, and distractive responses.

The results showed that only the ruminative response style after the earthquake predicted the level of depression in the short and medium term.

Most models agree that the intensity of the ruminations reflects the depth of the emotional treatment and that if these ruminations persist in the long term, they reflect a deficient adaptation. Some insist on the temporal dynamics of a cycle of responses in which the confrontation, especially in the form of mental rumination, alternates with phases of avoidance. Mental rumination develops involuntarily or voluntarily. This is an important track for their control.

5 – Can We Get Rid of Bad Thoughts?

Common attempts to eliminate “intrusive thoughts” are often doomed to failure. The more we try to dismiss them, the more they manifest themselves. It is better to try to tame them than to suppress them. So, how to stop ruminating thoughts?

“Avoid thinking about a polar bear! This is the type of injunction impossible to respect because it is enough to want to discard an image of the mind so that it imposes itself on us. “Prohibited thoughts” particularly affect the sexual deviant who seeks to get rid of his fantasies or the bulimic who wants to drive from his mind slices of ham that are waiting in the refrigerator. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also live this way.

Other circumstances also give rise to intrusive thoughts: heartache, personal conflict … We wish we could reject the haunting image that pursues you and haunts you. Daniel Wegner, a professor at the University of Virginia, has been researching these intrusive thoughts and strategies to get rid of them since the mid-1980s, the most common being distraction (“I have to change ideas “). In general, the change of air, of usual setting avoids their perpetual return. The method works, but in a costly way because supposing to invest in a multitude of activities. And the results are only provisional. As soon as the distraction ends, the “bad thoughts” come back at a gallop.

*** The rebound effect

The works of D. Wegner even show the existence of a “rebound effect”. After a period of relative deletion, the intrusive ideas come back in force. This rebound effect is based in particular on a perverse mechanism. The attempt of voluntary refoulement creates a sort of focus of the mind on the ideas to be discarded. As for the image of the polar bear, the more we want to avoid these ideas, the more they are pregnant.

Wegner, therefore, suggests another strategy for getting rid of intrusive thoughts: rather than trying to eliminate them, it is better to try to control them, tame them rather than suppress them. Similarly, it seems more efficient to focus on a single “distractor”, which occupies the mind more effectively than many. Take a book or devote yourself to your butterfly collection, rather than going to the movies with friends.

Dr. Wegner’s studies have been the subject of much debate and research by psychologists as to whether the rebound effect and its strategies for avoiding it applied well to emotionally charged thoughts. The results are rather contrasted. Which means that the wounds of the soul, in any case, long to heal.

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