Worry and Rumination Highly Damaging to Women’s Mental Health
In the past, mental health professionals and researchers have linked increased risks for depression-related problems and anxiety-related problems to tendencies toward worry and rumination. In a study published in March 2015 in the Australian Journal of Psychology, researchers from three U.S. institutions assessed the possible reasons for the damaging impact of such tendencies on women’s mental health. The researchers concluded that women’s worry- and rumination-related risks for depression and anxiety are linked to their level of general psychological distress.
Worry and Rumination
Worry is a natural response to risky or potentially risky situations and events. When human beings engage in this emotion, they experience increases in alertness and acuity that may reduce their exposure to negative outcomes. Worry produces its beneficial effects by boosting an individual’s level of anxiety or anxiousness. Unfortunately, in a person who worries frequently or excessively, anxiety levels can rise past a sustainable, healthy level and produce a harmful impact on day-to-day mental health. At the extreme, an individual who loses control of his or her anxiety levels can develop a diagnosable condition called an anxiety disorder. Examples of these conditions include panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia).
A person who ruminates focuses repeatedly on the negative aspects of previous situations or events. In turn, a repetitive focus on the negative can steeply increase the likelihood of developing major depression or other serious mental health issues. For a number of reasons, women apparently tend to engage in rumination more often than men. Additional risk factors for increased involvement in rumination include a history of exposure to highly traumatic circumstances, a belief that rumination produces benefits rather than harms, the presence of neurotic or perfectionist personality traits and a self-perceived high level of exposure to daily life stresses beyond individual control.
General Psychological Distress
Researchers and mental health professionals use the terms general psychological distress and general distress to describe the combined effects of a number of factors that can contribute to a decline in a person’s sense of mental/emotional well-being. Examples of these factors include “down” or depressed feelings, anxious feelings, guilty feelings, high anger levels, low energy levels, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and self-destructive or out-of-control thought processes. Known potential consequences of high general psychological distress include substance abuse, diagnosable mental illness and self-injuring or overtly suicidal behavior.
Impact on Women’s Mental Health
In the study published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School, the Henry Ford Health System and Kent State University used a small-scale project involving 67 women to explore the reasons why rumination and excessive worry increase women’s chances of developing problems with depression and/or anxiety. In part, the researchers wanted to know if worry and rumination have common underpinnings; they also wanted to identify as many such underpinnings as possible. Over a period of five weeks, the researchers conducted weekly screenings designed to detect each participant’s level of involvement in worry and rumination. In addition, they screened for general psychological distress levels, anxiety-based excessive arousal and a depression-based loss of the ability to feel pleasure.
The researchers confirmed the fact that women affected by high levels of general psychological distress have increased risks for both anxiety-related mental health problems and depression-related mental health problems. Crucially, they also concluded that both worry and rumination are independent risk factors for heightened general psychological distress. (This means that each tendency has a damaging effect that doesn’t depend on the presence of the other tendency.) In addition, the researchers concluded that women who worry excessively have increased risks for anxiety-based excessive arousal, while women who ruminate have increased risks for a depression-based loss of the ability to feel pleasure.
The researchers found that women who ruminate one week have heightened chances of experiencing increased levels of general psychological distress the next week; conversely, women who experience high levels of general psychological distress one week have increased chances of ruminating the next week. Due to this feedback loop between ruminating and feeling psychological distress, rumination may harm women’s mental health substantially more than excessive worry.