Written by Trevor Eddolls
Why is it the most natural thing in the world to think about painful situations over-and-over again? Why do people spend more time on negative issues than positive ones – the things that make us happy? I’ve seen posters (no source is quoted) suggesting:
- 40 percent of all the things we worry about never happen.
- 30 percent have already happened, so we can’t change them.
- 12 percent are needless worries about health.
- 10 percent are minor miscellaneous worries.
- 4 percent are real worries that we can’t do anything about.
- 4 percent are real worries that we can do something about.
Somehow, those figures just feel right when you look at them rationally – which means that most of what people worry about is not worth the time spent worrying. Other figures are claiming that 80 percent of our thoughts are negative, and 95 percent are repetitive. Worryingly, in the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, it says: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought”. So, if we are repeatedly thinking negatively, what kind of person are we turning into?
There are thought to be three leading causes of negative thoughts.
- Fear of the future. The future is unknown and no-one knows what will happen. This can lead to ‘catastrophizing’, which is predicting failure and disaster.
- Anxiety about the present, eg what people think of us, whether we’re doing a good job at work, etc. This can lead to ‘worst-case scenario’ thinking.
- Shame about the past. Feeling embarrassed about past mistakes and failures – things that cannot be changed.
It may be that by going over painful experiences or worries in our minds, we hope to find new insights or understandings that will reduce our distress and allow us to move on. However, quite often, instead of finding some kind of understanding and moving on, we constantly replay the same scenario, making us feel sadder, angrier, or more agitated, each time the scenario repeats. This brooding or rumination isn’t good for a person because it increases the distress they feel.
Rumination can be almost addictive. The more people ruminate, the more compelled they feel to carry on. Rumination can also increase the likelihood of a person becoming depressed, And it is also associated with a greater risk of alcohol abuse and eating disorders. Brooding over one thing can increase a person’s risk of thinking negatively about other aspects of their life. Rumination can impair thinking, causing people to be slower to take steps to deal with an issue. Lastly, rumination increases a person’s psychological and physiological stress responses, putting them at greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
You can understand the evolutionary drive to have negative thoughts. Learning from past mistakes can make life safer for you in the future. But, clearly there is a tendency for many people to focus on the negatives. Rumination is a kind of negative thinking in which we go over-and-over the same thoughts. Rumination can make a person more-and-more anxious as they come up with more-and-more negative outcomes that could possibly happen. Ruminating can also make you feel depressed. You may focus on how bad you feel, why you feel so bad, what you did wrong to get in this situation, and how things could get worse and you could mess things up even more. This extended negative thinking can reduce a person’s motivation to take steps to solve the problem.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) came up with the idea of cognitive distortions. These are ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are then used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. By learning to correctly identify this kind of thinking, a person can then refute it. And by refuting the negative thinking over-and-over again, those negative thoughts will get less-and-less over time. Here is a list of cognitive distortions:
- Filtering – a person takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation.
- Polarized thinking (or ‘black and white’ thinking) – there is no middle ground. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes.
- Overgeneralization – a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence.
- Jumping to conclusions – a person knows what another person is feeling and thinking as though they could read the other person’s mind.
- Catastrophizing – a person expects disaster to strike, no matter what.
- Personalization – a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them.
- Control fallacies – a belief about being in complete control of every situation in a person’s life.
- Fallacy of fairness – a person feels resentful because they think that they know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with them.
- Blaming – holding other people responsible for your own emotional pain.
- Shoulds – should statements appear as a list of ironclad rules about how every person should behave.
- Emotional reasoning — if I feel that way, it must be true.
- Fallacy of change – assuming other people will change to suit them if they just pressure or cajole them enough.
- Global labelling – a person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves or another person.
- Always being right – continually putting other people on trial to prove that your own opinions and actions are the absolute correct ones.
- Heaven’s reward fallacy – the false belief that a person’s sacrifice and self-denial will eventually pay off, as if some global force is keeping score.
These negative thoughts can be stopped by noticing what events trigger them and looking at what other ways of thinking might fit the situation better.
The big question is, what can a person do to stop this excessive negative thinking? Here are some ideas:
- Become aware of what you’re doing. Start noticing when you actively choose to revisit your pain.
- Acknowledge that you’re thinking negatively.
- Get up and do something else, eg go for a walk, read a good book.
- Challenge your thinking. Is this really what you think or is it an inherited belief from your past?
- Ask yourself, is this thought helping or hurting you? If it is hurtful, consciously choose a thought that is more supportive, understanding, or positive.
- Give yourself a pep talk.
- Ask yourself whether this thought is useful.
- Bring your attention back to the present, and see that your negative thoughts are just that – thoughts not reality.
- Be forgiving. Forgiveness is a necessary part of releasing negative emotions such as bitterness, resentment, and anger. When we truly forgive someone, we also heal ourselves.
- Focus on ways to show compassion and understanding toward others.
- Say “just because” and reason with yourself, eg, “Just because I’ve struggled to find a good job doesn’t mean I will never find one in the future.”
- For negative thoughts that are linked to a specific strong emotion like fear, anger, or jealousy, write down all your pent-up negativity. Then destroy the paper, symbolizing your commitment to moving on.
- Don’t phone a friend and moan to them (ie continue with your negative thoughts) and don’t drink alcohol.
Positive Psychology suggests that memories of bad events (eg low test scores, social gaffs, etc) can continue to impact our emotional memory. Their way of dealing with this is to use positive reappraisal (positive reframing), which was shown to work well by King and Miner (2000). Watkins et al (2008) looked at grateful reappraisal. People were asked to remember an unpleasant open memory (like a police open case). Those people who were asked to do grateful reappraisal, wrote about the beneficial consequences of the event for which they might be grateful. This led to more psychological closure, fewer unpleasant feelings, and the memories became less intrusive.
Before we leave the subject, negativity isn’t all bad. Some psychologists believe that pessimism has its advantages. People who expect the worst often are more resourceful because they are better prepared when things go wrong.
It seems that people are hardwired to worry, but most of what they worry or ruminate about are things that they cannot change – which makes it seem like a waste of their time, especially because it can have a negative impact on their life. It helps if you can identify when you are falling into the trap of using any of CBT’s cognitive distortions. And if you do find yourself ruminating for any length of time, then, hopefully, some of the techniques listed above will help you to stop.