A friend was recently robbed at gunpoint on a dark street. She’s a little bruised from being pushed around, but she’s generally OK. However, she says, she can’t stop thinking about it and wishes she could.
Not unusual. In the psychological literature, that’s called repetitive thought, and it can be a bad thing except when it’s a good thing.
As you probably already know, trying to suppress a thought is pointless—that old “don’t think about a white bear” parlor game. In fact, studies indicate that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more you will have it.
So if you can’t stop a repetitive thought, what do you do with it?
I found a fascinating article titled “Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought”, and it’s a 2008 literature review of different sorts of repetitive thoughts. I never thought about how many types there are. The article discusses…
- Depressive rumination–thinking about your own depression and how it’s messing with your life
- Rumination—thinking about anything over and over, even when it’s not relevant to the moment at hand
- Worry—thinking about something that might end badly
- Perseverative cognition—thinking about something stressful, causing stress responses in your body
- Cognitive and emotional processing—thinking about a stressor and how to integrate it into your life and worldview
- Planning, Problem Solving, and Mental Simulation—planning stuff, figuring stuff out
- Counterfactual thinking—thinking about how you might have done things differently in a past event
- Defensive pessimism—thinking about worst-case scenarios to figure out how they can be prevented
- Reflection—thinking philosophically about who you are, in a way that enhances self-knowledge
- Mind wandering—letting your mind drift from the current task to “internal information”
- Post-event rumination—i.e. thinking about the dumb things you said last night
- Positive rumination—thinking about all the ways you’re awesome
- Habitual negative self-thinking—thinking (uncontrollably) about all the ways you’re a loser
Though I haven’t discussed the content of her thoughts with her, my friend’s repetitive thinking probably falls under “cognitive and emotional processing.” Her sense of safety and perception of her world has been rocked, and so the event is replaying again and again in her mind as she integrates it into her worldview.
It seems this kind of repetitive thinking can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the light you cast on it.
For example, thinking over and over about how unsafe the world is after you’ve been victimized might ultimately do your head more harm than good. Finding something positive to think about–for example, how you were able to think and act under stress, or how people supported you afterwards–can help you fit the memory into your life in a positive way. Post-traumatic growth, they call it. (I happen to know my friend thought on her feet in terrifying circumstances, and that’s impressive. Brava!)
In addition, it appears that writing about the thoughts and emotions connected to an event can help post-traumatic growth. (The “thoughts” part is important. Just writing about emotions attached to it is not as helpful.)
In general, and unsurprisingly, negative repetitive thoughts are more likely to lead to negative consequences while positive repetitive thoughts can lead to positive consequences.
So if you can’t stop thinking about that white bear, at least give him a cuddle and make him your friend.