Oct 25, 2022, 1:00 am UTC

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Rumination: The missing link between discrimination and depression?

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Discrimination is increasingly part of the conversations about the mental health crisis. The question is no longer, "Does perceived discrimination affect our psychological wellbeing?" But rather, "Why?" What is it about the way our minds react to the stress of everyday discrimination that leads to distress?

The culprit may be rumination — a coping mechanism that keeps us focused on the source of that distress.

Rumination is a form of repetitive negative thinking. We ruminate when we feel down, dwelling on our sad feelings and their possible causes and consequences. It tends to keep us in a holding pattern of negativity, and it has actually been shown to prolong and exacerbate depression.

Research on rumination is especially relevant to women. For example, there is some evidence that women tend to ruminate more than men, and also that rumination might account for the gender differences in depression, where women are at a far greater risk for the condition than men.

But what about rumination and discrimination?

Over the past decade, researchers have consistently found a connection between perceived discrimination, rumination, and negative mental health outcomes like depression. However, they are still working out cause and effect. Still, if rumination is the missing link, we might be able to buffer the psychological impact of discrimination. Solutions like rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy could be used to shift people’s thinking style away from rumination and the spiral of negativity that can come with it.

One study looked at whether rumination explains the relationship between perceived racial discrimination and depression in racially and ethnically diverse college students, most of whom identified as female.

The researchers, based at Hunter College and the City University of New York, focused on two rumination subtypes: brooding and reflection. Brooding, or dwelling on one’s feelings of sadness, is a maladaptive way of coping with stress. On the other hand, reflection (also known as reflective pondering) involves trying to understand those feelings. Unlike brooding, it can help a person manage stressful situations.

The researchers, led by psychologist Regina Miranda, found that perceived discrimination was associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms in the young adults, both White and non-White. They also found that perceived discrimination was strongly associated with rumination (both brooding and reflection subtypes), but only in students from racial/ethnic minority groups. Lastly, they showed that brooding, but not reflection, mediated the relationship between perceived discrimination and depressive symptoms in racial/ethnic minority students. Based on these results, the researchers recommended that the solutions for depression should address people’s tendency to dwell on their negative emotions.

Building on that research, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined whether rumination also explains psychological distress, loneliness, and alcohol use among adults who experience online racial discrimination, which they called “pervasive, permanent, and evolving.” Like interpersonal forms of racism, which might play out on the street or in the boardroom, online racism has been linked to poor mental health.

Researchers Brian TaeHyuk Keum and Xu Li hypothesized that adults would ruminate about the racist interactions and content they encountered online and that their online experiences would lead them to brace themselves for racial discrimination offline. Specifically, they suggested that online racial discrimination takes its toll on psychological well-being by triggering rumination followed by race-related vigilance.

They found that rumination and vigilance were associated with distress and loneliness in racial minority adults. Rumination alone was associated with alcohol use severity. They also found a stepwise relationship between rumination, vigilance, distress and loneliness, just as they had predicted. Their findings, which begin to show how online racism exerts its effects, were similar across the groups of Black, Asian American, and Latinx adults who participated in the research. 

Keum and Li suggest that mental health professionals could help take the sting out of online racism by helping people overcome their tendency to ruminate and fixate on potential threats. They also suggest that positive coping strategies, like social support and collective action, might moderate the stress of online racial discrimination.


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