Ruminating about past traumas inhibits recovery
Most trauma survivors experience some stress symptoms shortly after the trauma but then recover even without treatment. However, in some survivors this natural recovery process comes to a halt, leading to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some experts think excessive rumination about the trauma (e.g., repeatedly thinking “Why did it happen to me?” or "What if I had behaved differently?") might slow recovery from the stress after a trauma.
We tried an experiment to test this. All of our participants had experienced a negative life event (e.g., death of a loved one or relationship breakup). We first asked participants to give us a detailed account of their experience. We then asked some to ruminate about their negative event and others to think about neutral topics.
Those who ruminated about their negative event had more negative mood and more intrusive memories, while those who thought about other things showed much greater stress reduction.
But, when the same participants later listened to a taped description of their negative event, those who had been instructed to ruminate showed less of an increase in negative mood and intrusive memories than people who had distracted themselves.
All this leads us to think that rumination (e.g., asking “what if” or “why”-questions about the traumatic event) gets in the way of recovery from PTSD, but that the relationship is complex.
Ehring, T., Fuchs, N., & Klasener, I. (2009). The effects of experimentally induced rumination versus distraction on analogue posttraumatic stress symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 40, 403-413.