Repetitively turning over negative thoughts, or ruminating, is a behavior that has been explored as a target for therapy in conditions like depression. After all, it’s not hard to imagine that getting stuck in a cycle of replaying negative thoughts might harm mental health.
So what’s the best way to stop ruminating on negative thoughts?
To start ruminating on positive thoughts, maybe!
A new study from researchers in China proposes that replacing “negative rumination” with “positive rumination” might have therapeutic potential. The specific way they suggest accomplishing this shift is through expressive writing exercises done with the guidance of a therapist.
The idea of “positive rumination” comes from the realization that repetitively thinking about a topic isn’t always bad. In particular, two types of positive rumination that the authors of this study highlight are rumination on positive emotions like happiness and rumination on how to cope constructively with stressful situations, such as through active problem solving.
Thus, the authors came up a therapeutic process that involves writing freely about positive and negative experiences while working with a therapist. The goal is to develop a capacity for ruminating about events in positive ways.
In the course of their study, the researchers found several apparent benefits that people experienced from participating in this form of therapy. As intended, writing therapy participants saw a rise in positive rumination and a decline in negative rumination. More generally, they experienced an increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in depressive symptoms.
They even improved their performance on a task that involved quickly updating emotional information stored in working memory, which is relevant because repetitive negative thinking has been suggested to relate to deficits in updating working memory.
These findings fit with others suggesting writing about personal topics has potential as a form of therapy. Writing your life story, for example, has been shown to provide a boost to self-esteem. And if the findings from the latest study hold up in the future, it appears that writing exercises can also help people replace negative thinking patterns of repetitive thinking with positive ones.