Lets say I got angry at someone who did/said something wrong. Even after this angry interaction with this person is finished, I noticed I continue to express my negative reaction in my head creating some imaginary situation where this specific person is doing/saying something wrong (which they didn't do/say in real life; it's totally in my head, a creation of my negative imagination). It wastes my time, mental energy, breaks my focus/concentration at productive work, and definitely it's long term effect on my mental health cannot be good.

I just wanted to know -
- Is this just me, or this happens to other people too?
- What this problem/issue is known as (just so I can do a little more research online)?

  • $\begingroup$ I've closed this as self-help, but if you edit it to make it not about yourself, but a more general question, then it can be reopened. I think what you are asking about is "rumination", but the problem with self-help questions is that we cannot know your particular situation. $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Apr 11 '19 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnonWeinberg, thank you for clarifying the situation. I'm not very good with words. If you think keeping the question open might do any good to the community but it needs rephrasing then please feel free to edit and rephrase it. $\endgroup$ – human Apr 12 '19 at 12:21

Yes, this is a common experience. I often see people walking around gesturing and talking quietly but intensely to themselves; amusing that we not only have these imaginary conversations, but can hardly resist moving our faces and bodies in concert with those thoughts. Broadly speaking, humans often engage in counterfactual reasoning: imagining things that aren't. This has been proposed as one of the most unique features of human cognition relative to other animals.

A key related concept is rumination https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumination_(psychology) , which are negative and often repeated thoughts without new insight.

This is also related to mindfulness—awareness of what is currently happening—which is a tool to recognize when one gets lost in thought. It is not trivial just to realize that it is thought, rather than something that is actually happening.

Also see the psychology term https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-catastrophizing/ : "Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation, and imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation."

  • $\begingroup$ +1 (not showing because my reputation is below 15) for the simplicity of your language, and for the Catastrophizing link :) $\endgroup$ – human Apr 12 '19 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ You said "a key related concept is rumination". What exactly do you call the main concept then (the one you described in the first paragraph)? $\endgroup$ – human Apr 12 '19 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ Happy to help. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfactual_thinking: "[is] a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened. [...] These thoughts consist of the "What if?" and the "If I had only..." that occur when thinking of how things could have turned out differently. Counterfactual thoughts include things that–in the present–now could never happen in reality because they solely pertain to events that have occurred in the past." $\endgroup$ – Cameron Brick Apr 12 '19 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks again :) $\endgroup$ – human Apr 12 '19 at 14:42

Generally this is known as rumination. I don't know if there has been a more specific name for the specific type you mention, but it has been studied somewhat:

Certain characteristics of rumination, such as compulsion to continue ruminating, occurrence of unproductive thoughts, and "why" and "what if" type questions, as well as negative emotions before and after rumination, were significantly associated with PTSD, concurrently and prospectively. These characteristics explained significantly more variance in PTSD severity than the mere presence of rumination, thereby indicating that not all ways of ruminative thinking are equally maladaptive.

A problem in this area is that there's not an agreed definition of rumination, as the intro the Wikipedia article on the topic says.

Alternatively, one can also call persistent "what if" thinking just worry. In fact there are some older papers discussing "what if" thinking under worry alone.

The worrier is likely to engage in a series of 'What if...' self-statements. For example, 'What if I fail? My parents might shut off my funding, and I'll have to leave school. What if I can't get a job?.., etc.' There may be some attempted solutions offered (e.g. 'I'11 plead with my folks to continue supporting me'), but these will be followed by further 'What if... ' statements (e.g. 'What if they don't listen to me? What if they are too angry to listen to reason?'). This kind of mental behavior may have very different consequences for the worrier than for someone else who is anxious about some upcoming event but does not engage in worrisome activity. Data do exist that indicate that cognitive avoidance can maintain anxiety (Borkovec, 1974) and catastrophizing self-statements can worsen anxiety (e.g. Grayson and Borkovec, 1978), both despite repeated exposure to the feared stimulus. Although the stated function of worry by the worrier is to attempt to anticipate and cope with an uncertain future, the actual functional effect may be the maintenance of anxiety and its continued and frequent elicitation prior to actual outcomes.

More recent research trying to separate worry from rumination has generally proposed that time orientation (future or past) should be distinguishing factor:

Several researchers have investigated the content of worry and rumination to study the differences between both processes. The only stable difference that has been consistently found pertains to the temporal orientation (Papageorgiou & Wells, 1999; Watkins, 2004; Watkins, Moulds, & Mackintosh, 2005); whereas worry is predominantly focused on the future, rumination is predominantly focused on the past.

In my opinion, it's a bit of grey area whether pondering about what someone has said in the past is entirely past-oriented or it if it may have a future-oriented component as well. E.g. you may worry that they'll do something else related to the past discussion like come back to you and continue it. Counterfactual thinking as to what they could have said (but didn't say) is ruminative if you don't really think they might come back and say (more) to you. On the other hand, if you project that they may do so (and you're anticipating responses to a future conversation), it could just as well be considered a worry.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for your answer and all those references :) $\endgroup$ – human Apr 12 '19 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ @human: you can tick the (green) accept button if you found the answer good enough. :-) $\endgroup$ – Fizz Apr 12 '19 at 12:52

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