We all know the sensation of being caught in a spiral of negative thoughts, unable to break away. The name for this kind of intrusive and repetitive thinking pattern is called perseverative cognition; this post takes a look at ways in which this particular thinking pattern contributes to anxiety and how we can effectively manage it.
Perseverative cognition, or rumination, is the process of constantly reflecting on past events or concerns about the future. It’s the relentless overthinking of past events and/or mistakes and dwelling on concerns of the future that probably will not happen. When we think like this – in the past or in the future- we are taking away energy we could be spending in the present. This is why mindfulness is so important! It’s probably not surprising to know that studies have shown a strong link between perseverative cognition and anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that individuals with high levels of worry and rumination were more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression over time. What’s more, perseverative cognition has been found to intensify our body’s stress response, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure, and release of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
When you find yourself stuck in this continual thought process, there are actionable steps to help break free.
- Mindfulness Practice: Mindfulness involves being present and focusing on the here and now. It allows us to take a step back from our thoughts and observe them without judgment. Techniques include meditation, mindful breathing, and body scans.
- Cognitive Restructuring: This technique, a cornerstone of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), involves identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts. By shifting our thought patterns, we can reduce the anxiety linked with preservative cognition.
- Regular Exercise: Physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, neurotransmitters that help to relieve stress and anxiety. Even a brisk walk can do wonders.
- Self-Distancing Techniques: These techniques involve mentally stepping back and viewing our thoughts from an external perspective, aiding in reducing emotional reactivity and promoting a more objective evaluation. For example, ask yourself if whatever you are worrying about will still be relevant in the future. Create distance between your thoughts and feelings by acknowledging that you are worrying or ruminating. This alone will help. “This is me panicking” etc
- Professional Help: If preservative cognition is significantly impacting your life, seeking help from a mental health professional is invaluable. Therapists can provide guidance and tools tailored to your specific needs.
Perseverative cognition can be a challenging nuisance, but remember to create distance between your thoughts and feelings and not believe everything you think. With knowledge, understanding, and practice, you have the power to change your thoughts and, in turn, your life.