Do you think a lot? Experts recommend “4-6 breathing” and other measures

What helps against brooding: From relaxation fist to brooding time
Photo: CC0 Public Domain – Unsplash/ Nik Shuliahin

If only I had, what if, and why am I like this? Too much, even pathological, brooding puts a strain on those affected, and it seems almost impossible to get it under control. But it is possible, experts explain.

I hope I don’t lose my job! Why am I always in such a bad mood? How do I care for my parents who need care? Many people have these or similar worries. And it’s not unusual to think about it for a long time. But usually other everyday challenges come up and then you let the topic go – that’s how it is.

But for some people, overthinking takes over: they sleep worse and can hardly think of anything else. Two experts explain what is behind it and how you can counteract it.

Thinking is something else

First of all: brooding is something different than thinking intensively about a topic. Solution-oriented thinking, for example, is definitely positive. Brooding, on the other hand, usually doesn’t help those affected – quite the opposite.

“Thoughts revolve around negative topics,” says Julia Funk, explaining the phenomenon of overthinking. And they circle ever wider and more densely – like a spiral.

Those affected find it very difficult to break free from the negative thought spiral. And there is something else: “The thoughts are often accompanied by a negative assessment of one’s own person,” says Funk, a member of the staff at the Chair of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Typical examples: brooding over your own negative mood – why am I doing so much worse than everyone else? Or worrying about the future – what would happen if I lost my job? In research, this kind of brooding is called repetitive, negative thinking.

When does rumination become pathological?

Although rumination alone is not a mental illness and does not necessarily have to have negative effects on mental health, it can, and in a number of ways.

For example, people who have certain mental disorders tend to ruminate more than mentally healthy people. And rumination can contribute to maintaining depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders or post-traumatic stress disorders. Immersing yourself in negative thoughts can also be a symptom of depression.

On the other hand, mentally healthy people who brood a lot have a higher risk of developing mental disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders. Many people would like to simply stop brooding, but brooding can become a habit. “The circling of thoughts is then linked to certain triggers,” explains Funk. For example, brooding first thing in the morning instead of getting up.

People who are perfectionists are particularly prone to brooding, says Christa Roth-Sackenheim. She is a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy with a practice in Andernach and second chair of the Professional Association of German Psychiatrists. “In retrospect, they constantly think about what they could have done better.”

Those who tend to brood

And: People who can’t stand it when the table isn’t tidy or when the shoes aren’t in pairs are also more likely to be affected by brooding. In other words, people for whom order is important.

Some people also ruminate because they want to think things through so that they are not surprised when something bad happens. Ruminating gives them a feeling of control.

At the same time, brooding keeps those affected in a passive state – they cannot find a solution and do not take action.

Stop! This is how you get out of the spiral

How can you get out of the thought carousel? There are various approaches in psychotherapy that can help.

One is rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Rumination actually means ruminating, but here it describes repetitive negative thoughts. This therapy is intended to help people with depression in particular.

The first step here is to analyse when the brooding occurs. Then other, more helpful habits are established. Those affected also receive training in concrete thinking. Julia Funk explains what is behind this: “They visualise stressful situations that they often brood over and then think step by step about what they can do specifically to better master these situations, instead of jumping from one negative thought to the next.”

Another therapeutic approach is metacognitive therapy. This type of therapy is aimed primarily at people who suffer greatly from worries about the future and are convinced that they have to think everything through in order to be prepared for the worst to happen.

The first question to be addressed here is what the person concerned is trying to achieve by brooding and whether the brooding actually serves this purpose – to be prepared. They should also reserve 15 minutes of “brooding time” every day, but if possible not brood outside of this time. “This time limit provides relief,” says Funk.

Mindfulness-based approaches are also useful. Appropriate exercises or training focus on the here and now, which can be a helpful strategy to combat circular thoughts. This can include letting your thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky or like cars driving by on a road. Such comparisons can help to make it clear that thoughts are fleeting.

Breathe out of the spiral of rumination

People who think a lot often have tense muscles and rapid, shallow breathing. Breathing techniques can be helpful in interrupting the thinking. For example, the 4-6 breathing. In a relaxed position, sitting or lying down, you breathe in through your nose for four seconds and out through your mouth for six seconds. It’s best to do this for two or three minutes, says Christa Roth-Sackenheim.

“Jacobsen’s progressive muscle relaxation can also be helpful,” she says. The theory behind it: When the body is relaxed, the mind can also calm down better. Here, individual muscle groups are first tensed strongly and then relaxed again. One example is the relaxation fist. You can do it discreetly almost anytime and anywhere. You clench your fist for ten seconds and then relax it for 30 seconds. This can be repeated as often as you like.

Obsessive rumination versus obsessive thoughts

So-called obsessive thoughts can be distinguished from pathological rumination. Julia Funk explains the differences: “Obsessive thoughts often appear in the form of mental images, while in rumination the thoughts are more verbal.”

In addition, obsessive thoughts are often ego-dystonic, as experts say. Those affected then feel as if these thoughts do not belong to them. This is also different with brooding.

And: “Obsessive thoughts are often connected to a specific urge to act,” explains Funk. For example, washing your hands when you think about dirt.

Note: Anyone suffering from psychological problems can seek medical advice. In cases of severe, acute psychological stress, the emergency doctor (112), a crisis service (116117) or the nearest psychiatric clinic can help.

Read more on Techzle\.com:

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