Researchers have discovered a strong link between sleep irregularities and repetitive negative thinking (RNT). RNT is often manifested through rumination and worry. It’s a form of perseverative cognition — an umbrella term for constant, chronic brooding.

Perseverative cognition

Image via MaxPixel.

To better understand the world of perseverative cognition, we must first consider that, in psychology, ‘cognition‘ refers to thinking. Cognition includes all conscious and unconscious processes associated with thoughts. In this context, a persevering thought refers to a thought repeated in a compulsive, unintentional manner. The mind becomes stuck in a perpetual cycle — the same thought is circling round and round inside the head, with no end in sight.

When the nature of the repetitive thought is negative, two typical symptoms emerge: rumination and worry. These two dark sisters often lie at the foundation of depression, anxiety, and many other mental imbalances.

Rumination is defined by thinking obsessively about negative events, or emotions that occurred in the past, while worry is a mental state in which questions and fears about the future create feelings of agitation and insecurity.

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How malfunctioning sleep patterns impact negative thinking

Meredith Coles, a Binghamton University Professor of Psychology and Ph.D. student Jacob Nota published a study that offers new insight into how sleep affects repetitive negative thinking.

Their team designed ads with questions like Are you a night owl? Bothered by thoughts that keep coming to mindWorrying about the future?, and posted them strategically in 24-h stores or on Craigslist. After recruiting 52 people with high scores on the RNT scale, they carried out a set of interviews a set of interviews about the participants’ mental state and sleep patterns.

Next, the participants were subjected to a simple test. They were asked to look at sets of two pictures with different emotional values. Scientists selected three types of images: positive, neutral and negative. For example, the negative pictures consisted of guns, knives, threatening animals. The neutral images had common household objects in them, while the positive ones depicted sports, natural scenes, and enjoyable activities.

Researchers then measured how long the participants looked at the negative stimuli in comparison with the positive or neutral pictures. They discovered that the people who had an unhealthy sleep schedule (sleeping significantly more or less than 8 hours per night, with sleep interruptions) encountered difficulty when disengaging from negative images. Practically, they looked longer at the negative stimuli, allowing the vicious circle of negative thinking to continue.

One of the reasons the lack of quality sleep prolongs focus on negative images might be that the brain simply does not possess the required energy to shift its attention to positive stimuli.

In order to confirm their findings, results will soon be compared to a group of healthy controls. The study was published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.