Rumination and “self-distancing”

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Depression Center member Ethan Kross, Ph.D., directs U-M’s Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory. Part of his research looks at how people can constructively make meaning out of negative experiences, rather than ruminating over those memories in ways that make them feel worse. One technique for reflecting on negative experiences in a beneficial way is called “self-distancing,” in which people take a mental step back when thinking about past experiences as a “fly-on-the-wall” observer; creating distance from intense personal experience can help people develop a more reasoned, broader perspective that can provide insight and closure, lessening distress and leading to emotional relief. We asked Dr. Kross about the practical implications of his research:

Is self-distancing something that can be learned?

Absolutely. In our experiments, participants can easily implement this technique when we instruct them accordingly. We’re in the process of running an intervention study in which we train people how to self-distance to help them cope with negative experiences they encounter in the future. 

Why is it important to avoid ruminating over negative experiences?

Rumination has been linked with a variety of negative psychological and physical health outcomes. It maintains all manner of negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiousness), and it is a risk factor for depression. More generally, ruminative thinking has been conceptualized as a feature of a variety of mood disorders. Research has also shown that rumination leads to prolonged autonomic nervous system reactivity – that is, when people ruminate about something upsetting, their blood pressure levels go up, and then stay up over time (for as long as they’re ruminating). This observation has led some researchers to suggest that rumination is one mechanism that explains how stress can lead to physical disease. 

How might self-distancing be particularly beneficial for people with depression?

Depression is characterized by ruminative thoughts, and rumination has been shown to trigger depression. Therefore, reducing rumination should help people with depression.

Learn more about Dr. Kross’s research: