You’re boss just gave you a long-anticipated raise, and your partner wants to take you out to celebrate. Finally one day where all your ducks gently line up in a nice, neat little row…except for one…that nasty lady at the bank! Suddenly you work yourself into a frenzy over a silly altercation you had with some rude bitch at HSBC…but wait…that was 6 hours ago. Why am I still thinking about that?
Rumination, typically defined as repeated focus on distressful thoughts, situations, or events, generally functions as a mechanism for coping, but every so often it can run amok. Many scientific studies suggest that rumination actually increases the risk for anxiety, depression and the development and maintenance of stress and other unsavory emotional states. Indeed, thinking negative stuff over and over leads to negative feelings, which lead to negative moods, which then span negative behavior. Example: My boss yelled at me –she’s going to fire me, I’ll never get another job, I’m the worst person in the world and now I must eat 17 bags of potato chips.
When intrusive thoughts pop into our mind, our brains scramble to inhibit these unpleasant cognitions requiring quite a bit of psychological work. We fight to restrain, hold back, ignore, and try not thinking about it. Psychologist James Pennebaker, in his book Opening Up, presents study after stuffy that suggests that over time, the effort and energy put into inhibiting intrusive thoughts, can cause cumulative stress, and increase the possibility of illness and other stress-related physical and emotional issues. “The harder one must work at inhibiting, the greater the stress on the body.”
Pennebaker also posits that by not talking about a stressful events, quite often they are likely to later return as intrusive thoughts, dreams or an assortment of other unsavory thought disturbances.
Confrontation, on the other hand, can be quite beneficial. In fact, Pennebaker contends that in the midst of confronting upsetting experiences often there is an overall lowering of biological stress as well as a psychological healing component.
During a traumatic or stressful event, our brains take in and process the experience in a number of different regions throughout the brain, all at the same time as it captures the sights, smells, texture, tone, and nuances of the episode. By talking about it, or translating the experience into language, the brain creates a narrative of the event by organizing, categorizing and assimilating all the information from all the different areas. So alas – a good therapist and a 45 minute session can be good for us biologically, psychologically and even spiritually as therapy offers us a safe place to talk about and explore stressful situations. When we finally get it, discover the meaning, the message, the moral, or even just a deeper understanding of ourselves, the event becomes psychologically complete and thus - no more reason to ruminate, relive, rehearse and rerun the event over and over like a bad sitcom.
So, not only can therapy offer some biological benefits and psychological healing but also studies reveal that therapy can cause positive shifts in thinking, elevated moods, self-esteem and behavioral change. By “processing” these events, we have the potential to become lighter, happier and more at peace.
Need a good therapist? I know a million of them!