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Effects of Co-rumination Worsen Mental Health

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Effects of Co-rumination Worsen Mental Health

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If you’ve ever struggled with anxious thoughts, you may know just how frustrating it can be when you can’t stop thinking about something. Maybe you’re replaying a fight you had with your mom, re-reading angry texts from your partner, or wishing you could re-do a job interview as you play it back in minute detail. This endless loop of negativity and criticism—whether about your own actions or those of others—can spill over into your friendships. After all, it can be tempting to rehash problems or negative events with friends when you’re looking for a sympathetic ear… but, taken too far, this behavior can turn into what psychologists call co-rumination, the effects of which can backfire.

Co-rumination is when you engage in “excessive venting, discussing, worrying, and processing life stressors, negative feelings, or personal difficulties, in conjunction with another person,” says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, founder of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services. “This includes speculating together about things that could go wrong or fixating on a problem without actively working together to find a solution.” And over time, the continued focus on the issue accompanied by the lack of problem-solving can wreak havoc on your mental well-being and relationships.

What are the effects of co-rumination on mental health?

Some previous research suggests that certain aspects of co-rumination—like, for instance, encouraging a friend to talk about a problem, and feeling supported in doing so yourself—can have a positive impact on friendship quality, and for those with high levels of social anxiety, co-ruminating with friends online might serve as a buffer against depressive symptoms.

However, other analyses of the effects of co-rumination have found that all the rehashing can exacerbate your distress about a problem, worsening (or triggering) symptoms of depression and anxiety—much in the way that ruminating solo can diminish your mental state, but with the extra emphasis of speaking words aloud and getting reinforcement from your audience.

Just consider the 2022 study on co-ruminating around COVID-19: Those who spent ample time commiserating with friends about the pandemic during quarantine, on social media and otherwise, reported perceived increases in health anxiety and greater depressive symptoms. Over time, people who co-ruminate have also reported having fewer friends (and befriending mostly other co-ruminators), which can reduce their sense of social competence.

What motivates us to co-ruminate in the first place?

Think about a time when you had an incredible first date or got an offer for a job you really wanted. Your first inclination was probably to tell someone. As relational beings, we thrive on social connection and receiving validation from our loved ones. Similarly, when we share our problems and struggles with friends, “we are wanting to feel seen, heard, understood, and supported,” Dr. Fedrick says. “We hope our friends can help us feel better about the negative situation.”

“The motivation to co-ruminate comes from wanting to feel seen, heard, understood, and supported.” —Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, clinical psychologist

Another reason for co-ruminating is that “on some level, it feels good to be angry,” says psychotherapist and executive coach Daryl Appleton, EdD. You tend to feel powerful when you’re raising your voice or clenching your fist—and the added encouragement from a friend when you’re co-ruminating about an upsetting situation can make the angry feeling that much more satisfying. She explains that many friendships are built on negativity, so we keep coming back for the drama because we may not have anything else in common.

The mutual exchange of problem talk—connecting with a friend to co-ruminate about both your problems and the friend’s problems—can also make a relationship feel super close (perhaps more so than it actually is), thus prompting you to hang out even more with this person, and sparking a reinforcing cycle of co-rumination.

How is co-rumination different from regular venting?

After having a bad day, it’s completely understandable that you’d want to reach out to a friend for support or guidance. Venting or complaining about any given issue is “usually a one-time occurrence,” says psychology expert and life coach Cheyenne Bryant, PhD. In most cases, you would air out your grievances and then find a way to heal or move forward—at which point the conversation on that particular topic would end. Co-ruminating, by contrast, “is an ongoing, repetitive occurrence that focuses on a single problem without covering potential solutions,” she says.

For example, let’s say your partner purchased an expensive couch without consulting you first. You might vent about your angry or hurt feelings to a friend and seek validation as well as advice for how they’d handle the situation. Once you’ve had a chance to share your side, ideally, “you would feel better about the situation and choose to let it go,” says Dr. Fedrick.

If, instead, you chose to continue rehashing this couch-buying episode with the friend, you’d no longer be just venting; you’d be co-ruminating, prompting your friend to spur you on to continue discussing the same topic. “You might then feel worse about it because those negative feelings are being encouraged and provoked further,” says Dr. Fedrick.

Which is worse: ruminating alone or with a friend?

Any kind of ruminating can be harmful to your mood and overall well-being. People tend to ruminate alone because “they are trying to make sense of a situation or help themselves feel better without realizing that they can’t actually control or change it,” says Dr. Fedrick.

Because you don’t have someone there to validate your feelings or offer a different perspective when ruminating alone, you may feel especially stuck with the problem you’re facing, confused, or isolated. The ongoing repetitive process that occurs with solo rumination “can lead to the onset of anxiety or depression and worsen existing mental health conditions,” says Dr. Bryant. “Ruminating alone is never healthy because isolation breeds depression.”

“You might feel justified or even encouraged to continue obsessing over a problem instead of realizing that it is not helpful or healthy for you to do so.” —Dr. Fedrick

With co-ruminating, there’s a chance that you could leave the conversation with a friend feeling not only validated but also, more confident or empowered to address the problem at hand. Still, what tends to happen instead is a far more negative kind of reinforcement. “You might feel justified or even encouraged to continue obsessing over a problem instead of realizing that it is not helpful or healthy for you to do so,” says Dr. Fedrick.

What are the effects of co-rumination on a friendship?

Friendships that revolve around complaining, whether about yourself or others, can produce “a toxic dynamic, where the focus is always on problems and negative thought patterns,” says Dr. Fedrick. Relatedly, frequent co-rumination with the same friend ups your risk for “becoming codependent and enmeshed, especially if you start seeking each other out specifically to ruminate and fixate on problems together,” she adds.

Often, when you’re venting to a friend, “you’re trying to crowdsource an opinion that validates your feelings,” says Dr. Appleton. “Co-rumination takes this a step further, where two people are throwing fuel on a fire and are at risk of inhaling all the toxic fumes.” Eventually, you can get caught up in a cycle of negativity where you feel bitter, angry, untrusting, and closed-off.

How to stop the co-rumination cycle

If you find that co-ruminating is dominating the time you’re spending with a particular friend, Dr. Appleton recommends pausing to reflect on whether you’ve discussed a given problem before and considering what may be getting in the way of finding a solution. Otherwise, you can end up “stuck in a place that never has a resolution,” she adds.

In certain scenarios, you may be able to talk with a different friend or trusted confidant for insight into a problem on which you’ve been co-ruminating in another relationship. Someone who can help you broaden your perspective and gain some psychological distance from the problem might turn your attention to a solution you wouldn’t have otherwise uncovered.

If the issue at hand isn’t one you can “solve” per se (maybe you’re co-ruminating about how a certain social scenario unfolded or the ending of a former relationship), it’s wise to turn your attention to the lessons you might be able to glean for the future, so that you have a better chance of keeping the same negative situation from happening again. This perspective change puts control over the situation in your hands, which can feel empowering in a way that simply rehashing something from the past never will.

To keep from falling back into the co-ruminating cycle, you might also plan specific activities for your hangouts with a friend who tends to be your co-ruminating counterpart. It’s just easier to stop overthinking or harping about something from the past if you’re mentally or physically preoccupied with something like playing a game of pickleball or cooking a meal together.

Since overthinking and rehashing negative events can make a problem seem bigger or even insurmountable, it’s also worth seeking help from a mental-health professional to develop healthier approaches to coping with stress.

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