Ruminating about negative life events makes them feel closer in time, study finds

A new study demonstrates that ruminating about negative life events makes them feel as though they occurred more recently.

Ewa Siedlecka, Miriam Cooper, and Thomas Denson, researchers from UNSW Australia, Sydney, published a report in February in the journal PLoS ONE showing that the way negative emotional events feel like they occurred “just yesterday” may be psychologically true.

Although previous work on post-traumatic stress disorder has suggested that the emotionally charged events that are often the subject of rumination may be relived as if they are happening in the present, this study is the first to directly test the relationship between rumination and perceived temporal distance. It is commonly experienced, for example, that over time emotionally “hot” experiences may cool, and that perceived psychological distance between an event and present time can aid emotional detachment.

Some recent studies have also reported that increasing the perceived temporal distance between an emotional event and the present can reduce that event’s intensity and the amount of rumination it elicits. This new study assessed the converse: the effect of rumination on feelings of temporal distance.

In three separate experiments, researchers show that ruminating about a negative event that one has been through leads that event to be perceived as more temporally close. In the first two studies, participants were asked in an online survey to recall a time when they felt either angry, guilty, or neutral (recall “a normal trip to the supermarket,” or “an ordinary interaction with someone when you were out of town”) and were then asked about how often they think about the event and its perceived temporal distance (for example, “How close or far away in time does the event feel?”).

Rumination predicted less psychological distance for participants recalling emotional events, but not for those recalling neutral events, even after controlling for actual temporal distance and emotional intensity. In a third study, the researchers included sad events and other potential influencing factors.

“Emotional intensity may reduce perceptions of distance regardless of the specific negative emotion,” the researchers report. “But rumination is likely what makes people keep emotionally painful experiences close to their hearts and minds.” They add that ruminating about positive emotional events is also likely to shrink the psychological distance. For some, this psychological closeness may be beneficial as rumination can be a productive means to process emotional events. For others, such as those suffering with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, this research may suggest strategies for cognitive treatment.

“Reducing angry rumination may give people the distance they need to forgive others. Reducing guilty rumination may give people the distance they need to forgive themselves, and reducing depressive rumination may help people engage more effectively with life’s demands.”