Do you have a friend that when you get together you frequently complain and speculate about problems, rehashing them out, egging each other’s complaining on, and dwelling on the negative feelings associated with them? Well, new evidence confirms a link between friendships that involve excessive co-brooding about problems (co-rumination), and depression and anxiety.
Thanks to a large number of studies on co-ruminating, the new meta-analysis, published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, coalesced the data from 38 self-report studies meeting inclusion criteria, totaling a large number of experiment participants (12,829).
The main finding was that co-rumination has a small to moderate association with internalizing one’s problems, depression and anxiety. This suggests that engaging in repetitive, unproductive problem-focused discussions within close relationships may promote emotional distress, where attempting to manage stress by engaging in problem-focused discussions actually exacerbates distress rather than improving the situation.
The clinical relevance here is that therapists should ensure that those with anxiety or depression are given tools to not only manage distressing situations but also to be aware of differences between counter-productively or productively discussing these situations with friends, and indeed the therapist themselves.
The study also emphasized two factors that have shown to boost the negative effects (internalizing of problems, depression and anxiety) associated with co-rumination — who the co-complainer is and what type of problems are being complained about — providing promising avenues for future research to explore these moderating factors further.
For example, regarding the type of problem being discussed, findings suggest that higher depressive symptoms are more commonly found when participants co-ruminated about social as opposed to non-social events, or problems that are due to their own responsibility rather than being someone else’s fault.
Same-sex friendships where shown strengthen the negative effects of co-rumination, with a previous study indicating same-sex BEST friends are even more at risk. The authors suggest that excessive co-complaining with same-sex best friends might be particularly dangerous as the closer relationship may allow for a passive focus on more severe or intractable problems leading to higher levels of emotional distress, and that different kinds of relationships should be investigated.
The analysis indicated that effect sizes did not vary by participant age, which had been expected based on previous research showing that co-rumination-mediated peer-to-peer depression contagion within adolescent dyads but not child dyads.
The meta-analysis researchers did point out a lack of age sensitivity in how they performed the analysis, lumping young adults in with young children and thereby masking this relationship. Further research may indeed be able to pinpoint a developmental turning point where co-ruminating as a child begins to become a problem for mental health, highlighting the optimum time for early interventions and mental illness preventing incentives in schools.
It had also previously been suggested that because women tend to have higher rates of co-rumination, simply being female would increase the negative effects of co-rumination.
Higher rates of co-rumination are consistently found in women compared with men across studies, which might reflect women’s greater comfort in self-disclosure, creating more opportunities to co-ruminate. Nonetheless, the meta-analysis reported that despite confirming this higher frequency of co-rumination, being a women did not enhance the negative effects of co-ruminating for women over men. This suggests that the effects of co-rumination on emotional wellbeing might actually be similar for men and women. Although further evidence is needed to confirm this, it indicates that men and women are equally risking their mental health by co-brooding about problems.
Lastly, let’s not forget that both subjective experience and objective research suggests that there are positives outcomes to having a friend to complain with that can help counterbalance negative effects, such as increased intimacy and relationship satisfaction. Ultimately, finding out how to enhance the positive effects and beat down the bad, will be the key to healthy and beneficial rumination with friends.
Both therapists and individuals alike should be aware that how often, who with and what people complain about with friends, partners or even therapists, may have a profound influence on the mental health of both people in the relationship.
Mother was maybe right:
If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.
Bastin, M., Bijttebier, P., Raes, F., & Vasey, M. (2014). Brooding and reflecting in an interpersonal context Personality and Individual Differences, 63, 100-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.062
Calmes, C., & Roberts, J. (2008). Rumination in Interpersonal Relationships: Does Co-rumination Explain Gender Differences in Emotional Distress and Relationship Satisfaction Among College Students? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32 (4), 577-590 DOI: 10.1007/s10608-008-9200-3
Schwartz-Mette, R., & Rose, A. (2012). Co-rumination mediates contagion of internalizing symptoms within youths’ friendships. Developmental Psychology, 48 (5), 1355-1365 DOI: 10.1037/a0027484
Smith-Schrandt, H. (2014). How individual differences in self and other-focused co-rumination relate to internalizing symptoms and friendship quality. Unpublished dissertation. University of South Florida.
Spendelow, J., Simonds, L., & Avery, R. (2016). The Relationship between Co-rumination and Internalizing Problems: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2023
Stone, L., & Gibb, B. (2015). Brief report: Preliminary evidence that co-rumination fosters adolescents’ depression risk by increasing rumination Journal of Adolescence, 38, 1-4 DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.10.008
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