Venting to friends, in the form of a rant, long text message, or string of expletives, can feel like the emotional equivalent of releasing a pressure valve–allowing negative energy to escape from our system.
But venting endlessly about a problem can be more like letting smoke up through a chimney—while some of the bad feelings are expelled, there’s a fire being stoked underneath that doesn’t quite go out, generating more smoke. Indeed, the venting itself is the problem–the thing that keeps the fire fed and going.
Discussing the same problems over and over again, instead of facilitating a release, can end up feeding our negative feelings.
Recently, a friend expressed to me this very frustration: “It’s so tempting to obsess. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it, or asking my friends to [do it] as well, with me.”
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as co-rumination—or consistent, excessive chatter on one topic. Co-rumination can be identified by an excessive focus on problems and negative feelings, says Margot Bastin who studies young adolescent behavior at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
Research on co-rumination ballooned after a 2002 study published in the journal Child Development, in which Dr. Amanda Rose, a professor at the University of Missouri, studied 608 third-, fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-grade girls and boys. Tracking their friendships through questionnaires, Dr. Rose found that friends who spent time extensively discussing negative feelings reported destructive thought patterns and even depression. What’s more, there was a contagion effect—not only did those divulging find themselves leaving discussions worse off, but their partners were also adversely effected, often experiencing depressive symptoms themselves.
Although studies on co-rumination have typically focused on adolescent girls, finding them the demographic most susceptible to this type of discussion, recent studies on college students, mothers and working adults have revealed similar patterns. A 2011 study even linked co-rumination to college binge drinking. And according to a 2008 study, co-rumination increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the body.
On the other hand, most studies have found that co-rumination is present in—and essential to—most close relationships. The safer and more attached two individuals feel, the more likely they are to engage in intense and emotionally charged sharing. In fact, co-rumination strengthens friendships, according to research.
So how do we maintain close relationships while avoiding destructive conversation? Rather than abstaining from emotional disclosure, we need to rethink the way we discuss problems, Bastin told Quartz.
In her latest research, Bastin breaks down co-rumination into two subunits—co-brooding and co-reflection. Co-brooding is the tendency to talk about problems in a passive way, wishing things had turned out differently and feelings of disappointment and dejection would simply go away.
Co-brooders also tend to focus on all the potentially bad consequences of a particular problem, often predicting future catastrophe, Bastin says.
“For example, if you have a fight with your boyfriend and you just start talking about all the bad things that could happen because of that, like I will never find someone again, and he will break up with me, and I will be crying alone and fail all my tests,” Bastin says.
Co-reflection, on the other hand, involves speculating about specific elements of a problem in order to gain a greater understanding of the situation. Using information gleaned from this process, individuals attempt to either seek a solution or prevent the negative event from occurring in the future. In co-reflection, individuals address their problems with the assumption they can do something about them. Bastin’s study found that while co-brooding led to an increase in depressive symptoms, co-reflection led to a decrease in these over time.
“This study is the first that shows that it’s not co-ruminating as a whole that’s maladaptive,” Bastin says. “If you are focusing on the feelings of how bad you feel and the potential consequences in a passive way, then it’s very bad. But if people are more focused on trying to grasp what’s happened to gain insight then it might actually be a very good thing.”
What’s more, in an unpublished study Bastin found that friends who engaged in co-reflection maintained close relationships and high friendship quality, while those who tended to co-brood were actually more prone to conflict in their relationship.
Luckily, there are ways to avoid co-brooding, Bastin says. When the impulse to dwell and rehash negative problems arises, it might make sense for friends to distract each other rather than engage in a potentially toxic dialogue. Instead of talking it out, friends might get more out of going to a movie, exploring a museum or taking a run together.
“Engaging in activities and being active with your friends might be a very good way to decrease co-brooding,” Bastin says. “What makes these discussions bad is when you just have them all the time and forget to create a balance.”
Mindfulness could be another powerful tool, Bastin says. Being cognizant of the patterns we often fall into when discussing our problems—specifically, a focus on negative emotions and potentially adverse consequences—can enable us to change the dialogue.
“If you make people aware that they are co-ruminating, they can stop themselves from doing it,” Bastin says.
Shifting conversations to focus on analyzing problems, with an emphasis on our capacity to solve, increases the utility of our discussions and prevents them from damaging the mental health of ourselves and our friends.
Ultimately, Bastin stresses the important and irreplaceable good that comes from close interpersonal connections. The phenomenon of co-rumination does not devalue friendships formed on open, honest and frequent communication, she says. Rather than abandoning discussion at the expense of our relationships, we might instead change the way we share.