Action 64

Ruminate and Brood

Rumination involves focusing on one’s symptoms and distress and the implications of those symptoms in a repetitive manner (e.g., asking oneself “Why did this happen to me?” “If only this accident had not happened.” “If only I had done something different.”). Rumination contributes to ongoing threat perception after the experiences of trauma. Ruminations may have a strong emotional imagery which can evoke, amplify and prolong intense emotions like anger.

The tendency to ruminate and brood, pine over losses, to not let things go, predicts the persistence of all kinds of emotional distress, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anger, anxiety, guilt and shame. Replaying events by continually asking oneself and others “why” questions for which there are no ready or acceptable answers, and engaging in “What if” and “Only if” thinking makes stress worse. Engaging in self-blame, self-condemning and guilt and shame-engendering thoughts and feelings blocks the development of resilience. One can be terrorized by his or her thoughts.

Such thoughts may come to mind almost automatically and the content is usually unpleasant and negative. Continually asking oneself questions such as “What is it about me that led to these events?” raise self-doubts that can disrupt one’s assumptive beliefs about personal safety, predictability of the future, trustworthiness of others and one’s sense of forgiveness and justice. Such rumination can increase feelings of nervous tension, negative feelings of sadness, loss and hopelessness. Such feelings can act as internal reminders (retrieval cues) and contribute to the experience of intrusive memories of the traumatic event. As noted, rumination can contribute to the persistence of chronic stress and PTSD.

Instead of engaging in negative forms of rumination, engage in constructive forms of rumination and avoid thinking traps. Constructive rumination or what has been called the “the work of worrying” pose “How” and “What” questions, for which there are likely potential answers, as compared to problematic rumination and brooding that focus on “Why” questions, for which there are often no satisfying answers. Constructive forms of rumination help individuals make sense of events and develop new ways to look at themselves, the world and the future. Constructive forms of thinking help individuals avoid thinking traps.

Avoid thinking traps such as all-or-nothing thinking, engaging in tunnel vision, jumping to conclusions, over-generalizing, impulsive decision-making, being harshly judgmental, getting stuck on “hot spots” or “catastrophizing.” Also, holding fears of extremely negative outcomes inevitably occurring, “awfulizing,” being perfectionistic, ruminating and brooding, engaging in “only if” hindsight or “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and blaming others. In short, watch out for “Stinking Thinking” and “Thinking Traps” as highlighted by Reivich and Shatte (2002).

The psychologist Albert Ellis said that individuals need to control and avoid telling themselves that “People must/should . . . ,” “I must/should . . . ” What he called “musturbation” or the “Tyranny of shoulds.” Ellis warned individuals, “Not to should on your head.”

Can You Identify the Following “Thinking Traps” in Your Self-Talk?

  • Use polarized thinking and think in extremes believing that something is either right or wrong, perfect or a complete failure. The use of words like “never,” “always,” “perfect or horrible,” “all or nothing,” “black or white,” and “dichotomous thinking” will reduce your chances of becoming more resilient.
  • Tend to “catastrophize” or “awfulize”—expecting the worst to happen and believe that you will not be able to handle the situation. Jump to the conclusion that you will fail and never be able to cope with the situation. You magnify or exaggerate the negative impact of an event well beyond the facts. Focus your attention on the worse things that can happen. Engaging in the following style of thinking contributes to the persistence of PTSD and accompanying adjustment difficulties.
  • “These symptoms (intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, lack of concentration and the like) mean I am going mad.”
  • “Because of this traumatic event, my life is destroyed completely.”
  • “Bad things always happen to me.”
  • Be a perfectionist setting very “unrealistic” high standards for yourself and for others and engage in self-criticism or criticism of others for not meeting your standards. Hold unrealistic expectations of yourself and of others. Cling to these old expectations that die hard. Are you too demanding of yourself and of others, too “success-driven”, and as a result your own worst enemy?
  • Perfectionism is a vulnerability factor for mood swings and negative social interactions. Perfectionism can also interfere with task completion and contribute to rigidity, being over-thorough, repetitive checking, constantly “raising the bar,” procrastination and avoidance behaviors and, guilt and anger following failures.

There is nothing wrong in striving for excellence in itself, rather it is when you base your self-worth almost exclusively on striving for standards and concern over mistakes in meeting these standards, when perfectionism becomes a problem that thwarts resilience.

How Perfectionistic Are You?

  • Do you elevate even minor tasks to being “really important” and get down on yourself if you do not meet your standard?
  • What are your reactions to your failure or someone else’s failure to meet these standards?
  • Are you satisfied after reaching a goal or do you continue to reset your standards higher after meeting a goal?
  • Do you avoid or delay trying to meet a goal because of fear of failure?
  • Do you tend to discount successes and look for and focus upon failures?
  • Do you continually compare your performance with more competent others?
  • Do you frequently seek reassurance from others about your performance?
  • Are you your own worst critic?
  • How can you become less perfectionistic and inoculate yourself to self-doubt and improve your distress tolerance?

What to Do About Your Perfectionism

  • Be aware of perfectionism and the impact on yourself and on your relationships.
  • Listen for the “shoulds” and “musts” in your self-talk, for they often reveal unrealistic expectations. Learn to spot your unrealistic expectations.
  • Loosen rigid rules and lower standards.
  • Re-examine and revise your expectations.
  • Take small steps toward your goal and feel good about each accomplishment.
  • Be more compassionate to self and others.
  • Relinquish goals if they are unattainable.
  • Stop blaming others for failures and when bad things happen. Avoid immediately assuming that it is someone else’s fault and react automatically.
  • Consider alternative explanations, instead of automatically feeling as if you are being mistreated and thinking, “It’s not fair.”
  • Create a pie chart and determine how much of the task performance outcome is due to your efforts and then figure out what other factors may have come into play.
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • See references on ways to reduce perfectionism such as Antony and Swinson (1998).

Here are other examples of ways to undermine your resilience:

Feel Helpless—Lack of control or influence about events that happen in your life (“I love your ideas; I’m just too stressed out to use them.”)

Feel Hopeless—Nothing will ever change, nor improve.

Feel Like a Burden—People would be better off if I weren’t around anymore.

Feel Isolated and Alienated—Others don’t understand and can’t help me. I feel unloved and unappreciated.

“Nobody is there for me.”

“Her asking me if I need help must mean she does not think I can cope and handle this on my own.”

“I am a marked person and I will never be the same.”

Feel Resentment—which is a form of chronic deep-seated anger that reemerges and continues long after a provocation or personal injury. You can whip up and inflame your anger and resentment. Anger has been characterized as a flame and resentment like a hot coal that simmers. Holding onto resentment, “not letting it go,” can have deleterious health effects and undermine the development of resilience and well-being. Resentment can feed on itself, like an untreated wound that spreads like an infection.

Individuals who are persistently resentful have higher blood pressure, higher rates of heart disease, lower immune functioning, more depression, higher rates of marital discord and divorce.

Hold a Confirmatory Bias—Engage in “Seek and ye shall find” thinking. Search for and interpret information in ways that confirm what you already believe. Only attend to and accept information that is consistent with your prior beliefs. Like a “self-fulfilling” prophecy, making negative predictions about the future, may lead to self-defeating actions.

Engage in Self-Handicapping Behaviors—A ploy by which individuals deliberately use excuse-generating acts where they expect to do poorly or fail. For example, fail to rehearse before an audition to create an acceptable excuse.

In Contrast

There is a need to adopt a resilient mindset.

In contrast to the negative behaviors listed above, there is a need to put resentment to rest. Like a playwright who rewrites and edits a script, there is a need for the resentful individual to craft new self-talk and learn to produce a new “inner dialogue.” There is a need to replace counter-productive self-talk with productive self-talk. Some individuals have found it helpful to engage in a symbolic act such as writing a letter to the person(s) for whom they feel resentment (but not sending it) and then burning it, or confronting the other person(s) in their imagination. In some instances, resentful individuals may require the help of a professional counsellor or chaplain to put their old anger and resentment to rest.

Instead of creating roadblocks of a negative script which are counterproductive and self-defeating, I can adopt a resilient mindset.

As described by two psychologists, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein (2003), “a resilient mindset is composed of several main features. These include feeling in control of one’s life, knowing how to fortify one’s ‘stress hardiness,’ being empathic, displaying effective communication, and other interpersonal skills, possessing problem-solving and decision-making skills, establishing realistic goals and expectations, learning from both success and failure, being a compassionate and contributing member of society. Possessing a resilient mindset does not imply that one is free from stress, pressure, negative feelings, conflict, but rather that one can successfully cope with problems as they arise. Accepting change and suffering as part of living” (Brooks & Goldstein, 2003).

An excellent example of a resilient mindset was offered by Terry Waite (1995), who was captured and held hostage in solitary confinement by Islamic Jihad terrorists for four years in Beirut, Lebanon. After being chained, beaten, and subjected to mock executions, he said, upon his release:

“I said three things on release: no regret, no self-pity and no sentimentality. I tried to turn the experience around. Suffering is universal; you attempt to subvert it, so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.”

Action 65