Many people ask me about ways to stop negative thinking. Though I would like to talk about ways to change negative thinking rather than stopping it, but first I want to discuss about types of negative thinking. The reason is that negative thinking, or as is sometimes called overthinking, exists in two common forms - worry and rumination. As an overthinker or negative thinker, you must be familiar with two styles of thinking - when you only think about negative things happening to you or around you, and when you tend to keep thinking about yourself and find it difficult to control or stop it. So the former one is worrying and the latter one is rumination. Let me elaborate it further.
Defining worrying and rumination: Worrying is a chain of thoughts and images which carry a negative emotion, and they are directed towards expecting a negative result for a problem. These thoughts are uncontrollable and the person can’t stop thinking about negative outcomes in future. The most common emotions associated with worrying are anxiety and fear. Rumination is also a chain of thoughts that are centred on self, where too much attention is paid to thoughts about one’s past failures or negative outcomes. It is also uncontrollable and the person can’t put attention to some important work other than these thoughts of personal failure. The most common negative emotion associated with rumination is of depression (being sad or upset).
Past-Future concerns: A significant distinguishing aspect of worrying and rumination is of future and past centred thinking, respectively. Worry is oriented towards future outcomes while rumination is oriented towards past failures. Worrying consists of “What if” statements, like, “What if I don’t get accepted for the job?”, “What if I become ill during the exam?”, “What if my father meets with an accident during his tour?”. Rumination, on the other hand, consists of “If only” statements, like, “If only I had worked harder, I wouldn’t have failed in the exam.”, “If only I got married with that person, I wouldn’t have to wait so longer to find a suitable mate.”, “If only my father had supported me with my finance, I wouldn’t have to struggle so much.”
As you can see, worrying is about imagining the worst to happen in future, while rumination is about what should have been done (regretful) or could be done to avoid a failure in past. The accompanying emotion with worrying is anxiety and fear while with rumination is of depressed mood. You tend to feel anxious and restless as what is going to happen in future if you happen to be weak or unable to cope. You tend to feel depressed as what you should have done in the past to avoid failure. Worrying is about inability to cope while rumination is about regretting about personal weaknesses.
Excessive focus on negative: Scientists have found that worrying and rumination have many common features too: both are repetitive, uncontrollable, coping processes and aim to solve problems, interfere with what we do in daily life, occupy attention for most part of the day, carry a negative emotion, keep popping up into the mind and distract us from work, reduce productivity, make us unhappy. In both cases, we are focusing on something negative. In worrying, negative is an outcome yet to happen, and in rumination, negative is an outcome already happened. In both cases, negative is just one aspect of a situation, but believed with certainty. In worrying, though positive can also happen in future, but attention is on only negative possibility. In rumination, negative has happened which can’t be ignored, but positive aspect of the situation in present or past is overlooked. So too much focus on negative aspects of situations, either in past or future, lead to negative styles of thinking. Excessive focus on negative makes it difficult to control them or remove attention from them. This excessive focus keeps the chain of negative thoughts moving.
Negative thinking as faulty problem-solving: A common yet unacknowledged aspect of both worrying and rumination is that they are attempts to solve a problem. We tend to begin thinking about ourselves or others with an aim to solve a problem. And if the problem is serious, or concerns us or our family a lot, and is not easily solved, then we keep thinking which becomes a habit. This habit is not helpful, and we are not coming up with a solution which can relieve us from distress of thinking. The discomfort of negative thinking makes us more negative, emotionally, and we get trapped in a cycle of never ending worries. This makes the problem even more bigger, with addition of another problem of overthinking. So we generally find ourselves in a state where we have to first stop thinking too much, and then focus on the problem. The increasing distress due to overthinking or negative thinking needs to be overcome.
Harms of Negative thinking: There are also other dangers associated with negative thinking. To stop negative thinking, we may start drinking alcohol which gives temporary relief but gradually becomes a problem in itself. We may think to harm ourselves by trying to end our life. Suicidal thoughts are more common among individuals who either think too much or think negatively. We may start taking drugs to bring relief to ourselves. We may stop attending our workplaces and this may result in loss of employment. Anger and irritability are also possible consequences of thinking too much, if depression becomes severe. One may neglect personal hygiene and self-care due to being over-occupied with negative thoughts. In fact, overthinking can lead to overeating, or sometimes low appetite too. Sleep difficulties are one of the most common problems faced by overthinkers. When mind is not at rest, how can one sleep calmly. The list of harmful effects of negative or overthinking can go endlessly. But we need to find some cure.
How we can overcome negative thoughts and overthinking? I will discuss in part II of this topic of unhealthy thinking.
If you want to know how much you worry, you can check your worry scores by filling a short questionnaire at any of the links below: