Do you often ruminate about the past or worry about the future? The death of a friend, the girl that broke up with you, the lady you want to date, the money you’re not sure you’re going to make, the presentation tomorrow,… We know that rumination and worry are bad. Nothing good ever comes from it.
As a human being you can’t live in the present moment all the time, no matter how enlightened the old man trying to sell you that idea looks like. You can’t live in the present moment when your purpose is to grow as a person.
Animals live in the present moment. They feed, fight, and fuck. We too are animals. We too feed, fight, and fuck. The more we are in the present moment doing so, the happier we are. This is our nature. Still, we need to reflect on past experiences to extract wisdom from them, and we need to think about the future to set goals and pursue them. This too is our nature.
However, when you reflect on experiences without extracting wisdom, you ruminate; and when you think about your future without making plans, you typically worry. Both are passive, tenacious cognitive processes. They produce junk thoughts and make you feel bad about yourself. Today we know how rumination and worry even fuck up the body.
A recent meta-study by Ottaviani and colleagues (2016) analyzed 60 studies to find out whether “perseverative cognition” affects systems in the body like the cardiovascular system, the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system. Rumination and worry are called perseverative cognition because they protractedly fixate thoughts on a stressful event far beyond its occurrence. What they found was that such thoughts lead to
- higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure,
- higher cortisol (stress hormone),
- higher heart rate, and
- lower heart rate variability.
This means that ruminating about the past or worrying about the future puts your body into stress mode. Stress itself isn’t bad for you. In fact, it’s better for you as your body to experience stress on a regular basis (just think about how physical exercise improves your health). However, if you don’t balance stress with relaxation, then you will suffer: mentally and somatically.
Rumination and worry fuck up your body because they outlast the stressful events they’re about. Your girlfriend of five years broke up with you? Good. This prompts your nervous system to actively regulate itself. You need that. But when you never cease to ruminate about her, it damages your body. Stress-induced diseases are not caused by stressful events but by perseverative thinking about these events (Brosschot et al. 2006).
Finally, consider that heart rate variability reflects self-regulatory strength. This means that rumination and worry, by lowering that variability, also decrease your willpower. What can you do about it? Learn how to alleviate stress and anxiety, and build a habit of daily meditation.
Brosschot, J. F., Gerin, W., Thayer, J. F. (2006). Worry and health: the perseverative cognition hypothesis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 60(2), pp. 113-124.
Ottaviani, C., Thayer, J. F., Verkuil, B., Lonigro, A., Medea, B., Couyoumdjian, A., Brosschot, J. F (2016). Physiological concomitants of perseverative cognition: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 142(3), pp. 231-259.
The picture contains the icon “Stress” by Shreya Chakravarty from the Noun Project.