Joining the How and the Why to Combat Rumination: A Novel Intervention Strategy

Gorlin, Eugenia, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Teachman, Bethany, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Rumination, or negative self-focused thought, is a well-established risk and maintaining factor for depression, anxiety, and a range of other highly prevalent mental health problems. Yet few interventions directly target rumination. To address this gap, the current study developed and tested a novel intervention strategy aimed at reducing rumination and associated negative outcomes. Drawing upon several theoretical frameworks within social and clinical psychology, this intervention paradigm trained participants to reflect on both the “why” and the “how” of a valued personal goal following an initial goal failure, by generating multiple alternative responses specifying both the value of (i.e., “why”), and the strategies by which (i.e., “how”), they might continue to pursue their goal.

Participants in this “proof-of-principle” intervention study were 298 undergraduate students (N=35 for the pilot stage, N=263 for the full intervention trial) with varying trait rumination levels. Participants were randomly assigned to a Why-only, How-only, or Combined (why+how) goal construal training condition or a “free-thinking” Control condition after receiving false negative feedback on an academic test battery. Participants then completed a second test battery, such that the effects of each training condition on subsequent cognitive performance, rumination, and emotional vulnerability could be evaluated.

It was hypothesized that participants in the Combined condition would show the least rumination and negative affect and the most improved cognitive performance, followed by those in the Why-only and How-only conditions, followed by the Control condition. We also tested whether trait rumination, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and working memory would moderate these effects. With respect to moderation effects, both reading comprehension performance and state rumination (as reported on a post-test questionnaire) improved most significantly in the Combined condition, as expected, but only among highly ruminative or depressed individuals. However, with respect to training effects within the overall sample, our hypotheses were not supported: indeed, the Control condition unexpectedly performed as well or better than the other conditions on most outcomes, defying our assumption that this condition functioned as an inert control. Overall, results were somewhat mixed across outcome measures, and there was no evidence that post-training state rumination (controlling for state rumination at baseline) mediated the effects of training on cognitive performance, suggesting the mechanisms of this novel intervention strategy need to be further clarified.

These lingering questions notwithstanding, the current results help advance our theoretical understanding of the nuanced role of construal and goal-focused processes in rumination. By introducing a novel treatment mechanism that holds promise for reducing rumination and promoting more flexible, resilient goal pursuit, this project addresses a highly prevalent and pernicious mental health concern and paves the way for future, larger intervention trials.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Goals, performance, rumination, negative affect, values, cognitive performance, intervention, depression, anxiety, individual differences
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