Think back to a situation that made you angry in work. Perhaps you were treated unfairly by someone in a position of power, maybe your work was criticized in front of your colleagues or maybe you were snubbed at a group meeting for no fault of your own.
Now think about how you reacted. Did you challenge the person, attempt to fix the problem or silently mull over it for the rest of the day, week or even month?
Many of us easily fall into the latter approach. Sometimes unpleasant incidents are one-offs that do not merit much attention and yet they consume large parts of our attention, internally, for a long period afterwards. This type of repetitive, negative mulling over is called rumination.
Rumination is a type of maladaptive self-reflection in which you repetitively, passively think about the incident that upset you, and your feelings about it, without taking any action to fix the problem or change your feelings . The trouble with rumination is that not only does it take up a large amount of your attention but it exacerbates the original emotion meaning that it can make you even more angry or even more upset . People who have a strong natural tendency to ruminate are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and anger .
So what should you do when faced with an upsetting or angering incident? The catch-22 is that other types of self-reflection can be helpful because thinking over an incident with a view to understanding how or why it happened can lead to solving the problem. If, for example, you think over the meeting where your work was criticized you may conclude that everyone else’s work was criticised as well, that the criticism was not as bad as you thought, that you can improve your work in future or that your boss was reasonable but is not normally so and you should try to shrug it off if as an annoying but once-off incident. If, however, you find yourself focusing on how angry you felt at the time and how angry you still feel now and how angry you are likely to feel later you are probably not focussing on solving the problem but instead just making yourself more angry.
It can be hard to get to the stage of helpful self-reflection while still in an angry or upset mood so the first step to breaking out of a ruminative cycle is to distract yourself. Going for a walk, doing any form of exercise or doing something pleasant can clear your mind for a more rational and focused analysis of the problem if, that is, it requires it. Many studies have shown that even just thinking about emotionally-neutral things can temporarily distract someone enough to reduce anger . Mindfulness, if followed correctly, can sometimes also help to reduce rumination because it allows negative thoughts to pass through the mind without judgement or getting caught up in the emotions. Cognitive therapies can also help as they challenge the types of repetitive negative thoughts that occur while ruminating.
There is a fine line between helpful self-reflection and harmful rumination and it can be hard to sort one from the other while emotion has too strong a hold. Some studies have shown that ruminators have more interpersonal conflict than non-ruminators and it is easy to see why if rumination means you are caught up in an emotion that should have already passed by . If you catch yourself ruminating in work take a break, distract yourself and only then, if needs be, return to the problem with a fresh mind.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., B.E. Wisco, and S. Lyubomirsky, Rethinking Rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008. 3(5): p. 400-424.
- Rusting, C.L. and S. Nolen-Hoeksema, Regulating responses to anger: effects of rumination and distraction on angry mood. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1998. 74(3): p. 790.