Rumination and emotions

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Vera Vine, Kirsten Gilbert

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Emotions typically have informational value, arising when there are important changes in the environment (Frijda, 1986; Nesse, 2000) and/or changes in progress toward one's goals (Carver and Scheier, 1998; Duval and Wicklund, 1972; Martin and Tesser, 1996; Pyszczynski and Greenberg, 1987). Thus, when emotions arise, particularly negative emotions that may signal threat or loss in the environment or lack of progress toward goals, people tend to reflect on or evaluate the causes, meanings, and consequences of these emotions. Martin and Tesser (1996) referred to such reflection and evaluation as rumination. They argued that rumination is functional when it leads people to take action to reduce the discrepancies between their current state and a desired state, or to give up unattainable goals. If rumination does not lead to such outcomes, and instead persists and focuses a person's attention on unattained goals and negative emotions, it can become maladaptive. For example, if a woman has the goal of a positive relationship with her husband, but has been having frequent arguments with him, she will experience negative emotion, and this may lead her to ruminate on the discrepancy between her goal (a positive relationship) and her current state (hostility between the couple) (Martin and Tesser, 1996). If she ruminates on the discrepancy in an instrumental, problem-solving way, then her ruminations will end when she either takes action to overcome the discrepancies (e.g., she initiates a conversation with her husband in an effort to repair the relationship) or when she relinquishes the desired goal (e.g., she decides her husband is impossible to live with and files for divorce). The consequence of such an instrumental approach is positive or neutral affect. In contrast, if her ruminations simply perseverate on the discrepancies between the current state and a desired state, the discrepancy will remain, and she will continue to experience negative affect. Our research has focused on maladaptive forms of rumination, their consequences and mechanisms of action, and sources of individual differences in maladaptive rumination. In the Response Styles Theory, Nolen-Hoeksema (1991) defined maladaptive rumination as a perseverative focus on the causes, meanings and consequences of negative affect in the absence of instrumental behavior to relieve that negative affect. She argued that such a perseverative focus maintains and exacerbates negative mood by (a) enhancing negative mood-congruent thinking, (b) interfering with problem-solving, and (c) inhibiting instrumental behavior. Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis (1999) argued that rumination also damages social relationships, as supportive others grow weary of the ruminator's inability or unwillingness to take action on, or "let go" of, ruminations, and subsequently become hostile and/or withdraw their support. Thus, the ruminator not only fails to solve the problems behind the original negative mood, but also develops new problems that may inspire new negative emotions, such as loss of social support. Most of the research on maladaptive rumination has focused on rumination in the context of sadness or depression, and that will be reviewed here. We will also review work supporting the mechanisms by which rumination has is deleterious effects. However, in recent years, rumination has been conceptualized as a transdiagnostic process occurring in multiple disorders, and exacerbating any emotional state that is present (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008; Nolen-Hoeksema and Watkins, 2011; Watkins, 2009). Thus, we will review work on rumination in the contexts of anxiety and anger, as well as recent work on rumination in the context of positive emotions. We will conclude with questions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Psychology of Emotions
Subtitle of host publicationRecent Theoretical Perspectives and Novel Empirical Findings
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9781628080537
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013


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