Co-Rumination and Its Impact on Relationships

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Who do you turn to when you’re going through a challenging or difficult time? What do those conversations sound like? It can’t be overstated how important it is for us to feel socially connected and supported by the people around us, but not all forms of support are created equal. Also, the line between helping and hindering can be blurred, especially when conversations lean towards venting.

As comforting as it may be to have someone to turn to when you want to vent or debrief, it can be a slippery slope towards co-rumination. It’s possible you’ve never come across the idea of co-rumination, but chances are you’re familiar with rumination. When going through a difficult time, it’s common to repeatedly mull over events that took place (not to mention the ones that haven't even happened yet) and the things that were said (or not said). Sometimes this process can be helpful, because it can be a way of thinking things through, weighing our options, and figuring out new, creative solutions. On the other hand, it can also make us feel stuck and be less prepared to actually do anything constructive about the situation or the emotions we are experiencing. The deeper we are in a cycle of rumination, the harder it can be to recognize it’s happening and dig our way out.

This process can be even more difficult to spot when it happens in our closest relationships. Co-rumination involves repeatedly discussing and rehashing our problems and difficult feelings with someone else without coming up with a solution or resolution. The issue is, talking with a friend, partner, or family member about our problems can feel really good. It can make us feel supported, bring us closer together, and even trick us into believing we are doing something productive about our situation. Unfortunately, in the long run it can hold us back from moving forward and actually lead to worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression.

So, how can you spot co-rumination?

1. Know the signs

It’s important to recognize the difference between sharing and ruminating. Expressing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences is an important way to build closeness and trust in your relationships. But if you find yourself talking about the same experiences over and over again, particularly those that involve difficult emotions like anger, sadness, or envy, it can help to ask yourself the following questions to see if you’re caught in a cycle of co-rumination:

  • Is this a new problem?

  • Have I spoken about this before?

  • Am I predicting things that haven’t happened yet?

  • Do I have any new information that I haven’t shared or discussed?

2. Learn your patterns

With time, it will help to become aware of your patterns of communicating in times of high emotion. Certain topics are likely to bring on more venting or rumination and specific people may be easier to open up to.

  • Are there certain topics you tend to ruminate about (work, romantic relationships, family problems, finances, health concerns)?

  • Are you more likely to co-ruminate in certain settings (in person or on the phone, after or during work, while drinking alcohol)?

  • Are there certain people you tend to co-ruminate with?

How can you move from co-rumination to healthy processing?

1. Catch yourself co-ruminating and be compassionate

Becoming more aware of our behaviors and patterns can often be enough to help us move from co-rumination to finding solutions. The more you focus on recognizing co-rumination as it happens, the easier it’ll be to shift towards a more problem-solving approach. Why be compassionate with yourself? Judgement and self-criticism will likely lead to more emotional reactivity and lessened clarity of thought, which only makes finding a solution more difficult.

2. Weigh the short and long-term consequences

It’s important to validate for yourself the instinctual urge to relieve unwanted emotions, thoughts and sensations through venting, but, after the short term relief, co-rumination isn’t actually helpful for relieving the problem itself. In the long term, co-rumination has the potential to drive people away, especially when a relationship is unbalanced and conversations tend to be overly focused on one person’s difficulties or life.

3. Switch to active problem-solving

Ask yourself if there is a committed action step that can improve the situation right now, even in a small way. Actually taking action is more helpful than venting, not to mention that it is empowering rather than the victim mentality of venting. There will be times when there will be very little you can do to change your current situation or circumstances and this could be best handled by devoting energy toward those things in your life that you can control.

4. Strengthen your other coping strategies

The mind doesn’t like a vacuum, in absence of something to do, it will go back to what it knows. Trying to lessen your tendency to co-ruminate without having a replacement strategy will likely leave you feeling overwhelmed and likely feeling alone. It’s  important to find new ways to cope with whatever problem you are facing.

If you’re still struggling with how to determine alternatives to venting and this is leaving you overwhelmed, feel free to contact me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.

“The Haunting of Hill House” Part 2: Trauma and Its Aftermath

Traumatizing experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust. Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and "crazy". Even though these reactions can be unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expected. By and large, they are normal responses to abnormal events.

Trauma symptoms originally evolved to help us recognize and avoid other dangerous situations quickly (before it was too late). Sometimes these symptoms resolve themselves within a few days or weeks of a disturbing experience. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, treatment with a professional can be beneficial. On the other hand, if symptoms persist for several months without treatment, then avoidance can become the method used to cope with the trauma (and this strategy interferes with seeking professional help). Postponing needed intervention for a year or more, and allowing avoidance defenses to develop, could make this work much more difficult in the future.

We create meaning out of the context in which events occur, so there is always a strong subjective element in people's responses to traumatic events. An example of this would be in the case of disasters, where a broad cross-section of the population is exposed to the same traumatic experience, but  react with different coping mechanisms (both adaptive and maladaptive).

Some of the potential long term results of unresolved trauma include:

  • fear, anxiety, worrying or ruminating (intrusive thoughts of the trauma)

  • grief, disorientation, denial

  • hyper-alertness or hypervigilance

  • irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage

  • emotional swings – like crying and then laughing

  • Nightmares and flashbacks – feeling like the trauma is happening now

  • feelings of helplessness and a sense of being out of control

  • increased need to control everyday experiences

  • minimizing the experience

  • attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma

  • tendency to isolate

  • feelings of detachment

  • emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings

  • difficulty trusting and feelings of betrayal

  • difficulty concentrating or remembering

  • feelings of self-blame or survivor guilt

  • shame

  • lessened interest in everyday activities or depression

  • unpleasant past memories resurfacing

  • loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future

  • becoming obsessive

  • increased use of alcohol and drugs

  • questioning faith or religion

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a wonderful depiction of the effects of personal and familial trauma with each of the children showing multiples of the symptoms discussed above. When families share a trauma, each individual reacts to it in a different way, but the family also reacts as a unit, often playing out dynamics and patterns that serve to keep the family stuck in an unbeneficial cycle. If Hill House is personified as a monster that feeds on its inhabitants, the family unit itself is also personified as a kind of organism that thrives on suffering in the form of co-dependency. As the show progresses, you see each member of the Crain family pushed deeper into private psychological terrors that manifest as terrifying ghosts. Themes of generational trauma, inherited mental illness, and the guilt and fear that accompany them, run throughout the stories of the Crain siblings and their parents.

Hill House follows two timelines: the Crain siblings’ horrific childhood, and a more intimate look at how that trauma and its aftermath have dominated their lives. The Crains have tried to hide and push down their grief (Theo through meaningless sex, Luke through drugs, Shirley through controlling her environment, Steve through denial) and each has maintained a facade in their relationships with each other, despite their shared trauma experiences. Trauma holds such a primal place for the Crains (just like all of us) and their perception of themselves that the siblings even argue about their right to claim and discuss their childhood (as if they can control it by taking ownership of it).

Most of the problems faced by the Crain family members (infidelity, shame, dishonesty, addiction, emotional withholding, obsessive behavior) are all fairly “normal” family issues (in the sense that pretty much every family can tick off one of them in their family tree). When trauma occurs, it exacerbates the family issues to different degrees. Each of those problems are painstakingly traced back to their childhood summer living in Hill House.

Because of the mysterious death of their mother, the Crain children have not been able to get closure. They haven't been able to properly contextualize their mother’s death.

Shirley takes a direct approach to dealing with the trauma . Along with the death of her mother, and the experiences involving the rapid death of an entire litter of kittens (interestingly, motherless kittens who eventually succumb to disease… just like the Crains being motherless and succumbing to mental illness). Shirley ends up sublimating (a coping mechanism meaning an expression of anxiety in socially acceptable way) her childhood fear of death into a career of ‘fixing’ dead bodies by becoming a mortician. She distances herself from the emotions of death by focusing on the exterior of the bodies.

Steven’s belief system protects him from reality and it serves to insulate him from his family and the past. By establishing his own narrative about what happened, Steven has been able to compartmentalize the trauma he has experienced, which is a very elaborate coping mechanism.

Theo absorbs the experiences of those around her with a high degree of empathy and this allows her to take on a large amount of emotional pain from others. She does her best to shield herself through the use of the gloves, her alcohol usage, blunt demeanor, emotional numbing, and the purely physical relationships that she has in her life.

Luke’s use of drugs is his way of numbing his memory of trauma. It seems likely that Luke also has a potential of arrested development (emotional) as a result of his trauma as well. As his parents gives him the bowler hat, they makes it a point to tell him that the hat signifies him becoming a ‘big boy’, but then the hat is taken away from him by the ghost of William Hill, symbolically leaving him in a regressed state.

Nellie, along with Luke, seemed to receive the brunt of the emotional scarring as a result of their summer at Hill House. Nellie has moved through life with a sense of emptiness and feeling invisible to others, especially her family. This is best portrayed in the scene when Nell becomes invisible to her family and despite their attempts to find her, she goes undetected. This best encapsulates the Crain family dynamic in relation to Nell as her feelings are continually deprioritized in relation to her siblings.

In the show, family is protection (both Nell and Luke use counting up to seven, the number of members of their family unit, as a kind of coping mechanism and a way to keep the ghosts at bay) but it is also a painful repetition of fears and anxieties that have no end. The family was unable to get the help needed to allow them to use the power of family relationships for healing. Thankfully, there is a sense of coming together in the end of the show, but unfortunately, it was decades delayed.

While trauma and its impact is a theme of “The Haunting of Hill House,” it is extremely important that those with trauma in their history seek treatment from a professional.

For help with processing a trauma in the Lancaster, PA area, please contact me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.