One negative thought calls another, gloomy and distressing images face the mind in a spiral that leaves no way out. This is the effect of dwelling on problems that leads to anxiety and depression, but, fortunately, there is a way to detach yourself from this vortex of self-perpetuating thoughts and worries and find calm if not serenity. A very recent scientific research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders by an American team from Oregon State University speaks of this (Lawrence et al, Journal of Affective Disorders, 2023).
The risk of ruminating
Brooding over a thought, an event that happened, an unpleasant feeling or an episode in which we think we weren't good enough is a continuous spiral that leaves no way out. Time passes and we get stuck thinking and feeling worse and worse. However, brooding is not an end in itself and, as scientific research on the subject shows, can increase the risk of depression. What can be done to block the process and recover serenity? The study we are discussing today offers valuable advice.
How to stop ruminating and improve your mood immediately
Scientists recruited 145 people between 13 and 17 years of age. Adolescents were chosen as they represent one of the categories most at risk for obsessive thoughts, anxiety and depression, but the results apply to everyone, including adults. Based on a questionnaire completed at the beginning of the experiment, it emerged that 40% of the volunteers had symptoms associated with depression. Volunteers were then asked to participate in an online game, designed specifically to generate feelings of exclusion. Then, the participants were divided into two groups. The first group was asked to think, both through images and sentences, what kind of person they thought they should be, thus effectively leaving room for brooding triggered by the unpleasant sensation that began with the game. The second group, on the other hand, was asked to divert attention from the negative sensation triggered by the game, thinking about the shopping list, both through images and sentences. For example, they were asked to think about the lemon they were supposed to buy, describing it verbally in their head or imagining it in different circumstances. The volunteers were connected to sensors to capture changes in the state of the heart and skin as a response to different conditions and, in addition, during and after the experiment, they had to indicate their state of mind through a score. What has emerged is that in fact ruminating on thoughts, both with images and words, leads to a reduction in heart rate variability, which is a measure of how much our heart can adapt to stimuli. A high variability indicates less stress and serenity, while on the contrary a low variability, as in the first group, the one who brooded, indicates greater anxiety and stress. In contrast, the people of the second group, who were asked to think about the shopping lists, had increased heart rhythm variability. The best results were observed in those who had imagined and not used verbal thoughts. In particular, a significant improvement in the emotional situation and regulation of the nervous system could be observed in these people. Therefore, the imagination of something concrete, such as a lemon can be, is a candidate to be an effective distraction from recurring thoughts and brooding.
When the spiral of brooding begins it is important not to indulge it but to interrupt it. We have seen that following the negative thoughts that chase each other increases anxiety and stress and worsens the mood. Instead, being able to distract thoughts and direct them towards something different, such as a fruit in the case of the study in question but also a landscape, turns out to be a valid technique for interrupting the flow of brooding, immediately improving mood and feeling less anxious and stressed. It is believed that imagining, rather than thinking in words, has brought the best results due to the fact that it is an immersive action, which requires more effort and also activates the same brain areas that would be activated if you experimented and watched the object, situation or landscape in real life.