The Wear and Tear of Rumination on Mental Health

Negative emotions are emotional states that tend to limit your personal perspective, decrease your ability to think rationally and increase your overall level of mental unease or distress. Current evidence indicates that negative emotional responses to stressful situations can significantly increase your risks for eventually developing a diagnosable case of the serious mental health disorder called major depression. According to the results of a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science, people already affected by major depression can lose their ability to tell the difference between various types of negative emotion. In turn, this inability can prolong or reinforce a depressed state of mind.

Negative Emotion Basics

Emotional states commonly viewed as “negative” include anger, frustration, sadness, anxiousness, guilt, disgust and shame. All of these emotions fall within the normal realm of human experience, and their presence doesn’t indicate a problem in and of itself. However, people who tend to call forth these emotions frequently while under stress can increase their long-term chances for developing a diagnosable mental health problem, according to the results of a study released in 2012 by a multi-university research team. Mental health professionals sometimes refer to this repeated involvement in negative states of mind as a personality trait called neuroticism/negative emotionality.

Importance of Identifying Negative Emotions

The ability to properly distinguish between different types of negative emotion can help depressed people limit those emotions’ effects and improve their overall state of mind, the authors of the study published in Psychological Science report. Conversely, people with major depression who can’t correctly identify their negative emotions may unintentionally extend or solidify depressed states of mind. During their research, the authors examined the ability of 53 people affected by depression to tell the difference between their negative emotions, then compared that ability to the ability of 53 people unaffected by depression. All study participants were adults with a minimum age of 18 and a maximum age of 40. The researchers concluded that, compared to people who don’t have major depression, people affected by the disorder have a much greater tendency to report the simultaneous presence of two different negative emotional states. Depressed people also have a much harder time distinguishing between the negative emotions they report feeling. The study’s authors believe that this inability to tell the difference between negative emotions decreases depressed individuals’ knowledge about their own states of mind, and therefore limits the self-awareness necessary to effectively participate in depression recovery.

Self-Distancing Skills in Depressed People

One of the critical skills for maintaining emotional stability is the ability to step back from oneself and objectively examine stressful or “negative” experiences. People who have this self-distancing ability tend to diminish the long-term impact of negative experiences; conversely, people who lack this self-distancing skill tend to ruminate on unpleasant experiences and increase those experiences’ long-term influence on mental health. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan compared the self-distancing abilities of 51 people diagnosed with major depression to the abilities of 45 people unaffected by depression. All of the study participants were asked to analyze their responses to a negative situation. After reviewing their findings, the authors of the study concluded that depressed people have just as much inherent ability to self-distance themselves from negative experiences as people without depression. However, while people unaffected by depression tend to access their self-distancing skills when analyzing their situations, people with depression tend not to do so. When depressed people in the study did access their self-distancing skills, they typically lowered their participation in negative thinking and other aspects of neuroticism/negative emotionality. In addition, they increased their sense of self-awareness and gained a perspective that allowed them to minimalize the effects of stressful or negative situations.


The authors of the study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that people unaffected by depression tend to improve their emotional states whenever they start questioning themselves in the aftermath of stressful or negative events. However, depressed people may improve or diminish their mental states when they start self-questioning. If this questioning process remains immersed in a depressed person’s everyday perspective, it will likely contribute to a continuing depressed state of mind. However, if this questioning is done from a distanced perspective, it can help reduce the effects of depression and contribute to a more balanced state of mind.

Scroll to Top