This Is What Happens to Your Mind When You Focus On the Negative

A man's thoughts illustration.

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Key Takeaways

  • University of Arizona researchers found that negative rumination is associated with longer negative thoughts. 
  • 78 participants were asked to speak aloud their idle thoughts for ten minutes.
  • While repetitive thinking can be beneficial at times, rumination is characterized as a maladaptive form of coping, which can lead to the onset of depressive symptoms.

Ever wondered what your wandering thoughts throughout the day say about you? Turns out they can actually tell researchers a lot about your mental health.

Researchers at the University of Arizona sought to understand the mental health implications of negative rumination. 

“So in our study, what we were interested in is the extent to which we would be able to see individual differences between people who display trait rumination, based on the questionnaire that we had, and people who display very little trait rumination,” Quentin Raffaelli, PhD, candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona and the study’s first author, tells Verywell. 

What Is Rumination?

Trait rumination is a tendency to focus attention on negative thoughts and emotions, which is associated with longer and more severe episodes of depression or anxiety.

The researchers found that individuals with increased negative rumination also experienced more negative thoughts and had a tendency to focus on the past.

“We’ve found that individuals with stronger rumination were more likely to have longer and longer negative thoughts,” Raffaelli says. 

The September study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Negative Thoughts Can Lead to a Pattern

For the study, researchers asked 78 participants to speak their thoughts aloud for 10 minutes while sitting in a room without electronic devices. They then analyzed more than 2,000 thoughts for rumination.

They followed some thoughts over time. People who ruminated had negative thoughts that persisted for longer than positive ones. Those thoughts also became narrower in scope.

There is one potential theory that explains why negative rumination leads to even more negative thoughts, according to Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Arizona and the study’s co-author. 

She says that one of the predominant theories in psychology literature, known as the broaden-and-build theory, focuses on positive moods, which allows people to become more exploratory and think outside the box. 

Broadened mindsets that arise from positive thoughts can promote creativity that contribute to successful coping and survival. For example, joy might spark the urge to play and interest can spur a desire to explore.

Whereas if an individual is in a negative mood, the scope of attention and focus may become narrower, trapping a person in negative thought, Andrews-Hanna tells Verywell.

“So you’re trapped in this negative space, and it’s hard to get out of that negative space,” Andrews-Hanna says. 

What This Means For You

If you are experiencing a change in your mental health status, consult with a licensed mental health provider or call SAMHSA’s national helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for immediate help. 

Breaking Through Negative Thought Patterns

Andrews-Hanna says that examining idle thoughts can give a glimpse into how thought processes can speak to a myriad of mental health conditions. For example, negative rumination may signify that an individual is expressing a maladaptive form of coping. This can lead to the onset of depressive symptoms.

“And so these periods of downtime and breaks, for people who have poor mental health, may create a condition that is facilitating some of these unproductive thinking styles,” she explains. 

If people self-observe their own thoughts and patterns, they may be able to potentially break through these negative thought cycles.

“There is extraordinary potential for people to learn to appreciate the importance of allowing ourselves to both take breaks throughout our day and also gain a little bit of practice in checking in with ourselves,” Andrews-Hanna says. 

If you feel yourself falling into these ruminating patterns, some ways you can help yourself include:

  • Meditating
  • Taking small actions to begin solving problems
  • Reappraising negative perceptions of events and high expectations of others
  • Letting go of unhealthy or unattainable goals and developing multiple sources of self-esteem

The researchers look forward to expanding the findings of this study to explore how thoughts and the content of those thoughts differ across age groups. Andrews-Hanna says that as people get older, well-being tends to improve.

“We think that by being able to quantify not only what older people think about during these break periods, but maybe we can extract a cognitive signature of people ruminating in action,” Andrews-Hanna says. This could shed light on how rumination impacts mental health across age groups.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Trait Rumination.

  2. Raffaelli Q, Mills C, de Stefano NA, et al. The think aloud paradigm reveals differences in the content, dynamics and conceptual scope of resting state thought in trait brooding. Sci Rep. 2021;11(1):19362. Published 2021 Sep 30. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-98138-x

  3. Fredrickson BL. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004;359(1449):1367-1378. doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1512

  4. Fredrickson BL. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004;359(1449):1367-1378. doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1512

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.