Updated: Feb 12
There is an ever growing body of research demonstrating how meditation can improve psychological health. For example, meditation can reduce our tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. There was research published on this in 2015, which I'm going to summarise here.
To start, lets think about when negative thoughts are really an issue and then go over how meditation can reduce them...
Dwelling on negative thoughts and emotions is called rumination. Here the mind goes from one negative thought to another or fixates on one particular event. Rumination is fundamentally different from reflecting on a negative event. We need to reflect on negative events, to some some extent, so we can learn and then move on. Rumination occurs when we repeatedly go over unpleasant thoughts for extended periods of time. One of the biggest down sides of rumination is that we often start to elaborate on the negative thoughts, adding information or feelings that are not grounded in reality.
Rumination is associated with a reduction in self-esteem and the development of anxiety disorders. It is also a risk factor for the development of depression and is associated with depressive relapse. Overall, rumination has been linked to distorted interpretation of life events, increased pessimism about the future, and poor interpersonal problem solving. At a cognitive level people who ruminate also have difficulty sustaining attention, and show cognitive inflexibility- an inability to move attention from one task to another.
The meditation practices Focused attention styles of meditation
Focused attention styles of meditation involve focusing on one object, most often the breath. The breath can be used to ground someone into the present moment. Specifically, the practice of noticing the breath is a form of embodiment; as we notice the breath we bring ourselves into our body which helps to keep as in the here and now and not in the past.
When practicing focused attention styles of meditation it is normal for thoughts to intrude on our focus as we practice. Bringing our attention back to the breath can not only shift attention away from these negative thoughts but also provides a means for an individual to practice cognitive switching. In addition, as an individual holds their attention on the breath they are practicing sustained attention. In a way we can strengthen these cognitive processes.
However, learning to move our attention away from a negative thoughts may only offer temporary relief. Over long periods of time it may be considered a form of avoidance, which can be as detrimental as rumination. Another potential means towards psychological health is using open monitoring styles of meditation.
Open monitoring styles of meditation Open monitoring styles of meditation are when we sit and simply observe thoughts and sensations without judgment or anticipation. Open monitoring leads to a broadening of attention where an individual aims to become receptive to all experiences that are occurring in the here and now. Most importantly a person learns to not become attached to any one thought or experience so that thoughts and sensations can simply come and go. Through open monitoring an individual allows themselves space to simply observe thoughts, including those that are negative.
Importantly, cultivating a sense of unattached awareness through open monitoring allows an individual to take a “step back” from their cycles or rumination. There is room for healing at this point, they can see these thoughts in a non-judgmental manner and accept them simply as thoughts that come and go. I think this is key, noticing the impermanence of thoughts. When we notice this impermanence, thoughts can begin to lose their impact. We can learn to see these mental processes for what they are; transient thoughts and not a core representation of our selves.
By practicing meditation one can improve their overall psychological health, including their tendency to ruminate. For the best outcome the authors propose that two forms of meditation are practiced; focused attention and open monitoring. When used together these two styles of meditation strengthen our ability to move attention away from negative thoughts and sustain attention in the present moment, the practice also provide a means for individuals to lose their attachment to negative thoughts.
Its important to note that meditation practices are like anything we chose to learn, at first it can be difficult but as we keep practicing it becomes easier over time.
About the Author
Dr Kathie Overeem works one-on-one and in group sessions with people who wish to experience the healing and transformational effect of yoga. She works with clients that have experienced stress, anxiety, complex trauma, PTSD, eating disorders, complex mental illness, and people in alcohol and other drug rehabilitation. Classes are offered online and in person.
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Reference Wolkin, J. R. (2015). Cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation accounts for psychological well-being through decreased rumination. Psychol Res Behav Manag, 8(171-180).