Ruminating on COVID-19 Might Be Harming Your Brain

New science says pessimism negatively affects cognitive decline.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

In this time of dealing with COVID-19, one can only wonder if the persistent habit of worrying over the virus could show up later in life as negative residual effects. Well, some new research seems to indicate that it could be a distinct possibility.  

Researchers in the field of aging and cognitive decline are finally weighing in on the age-old question of whether it matters how someone sees a glass filled half-way: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? According to a new study that looked at over 350 subjects, there may be a biological connection between repetitive negative thinking and dementia.  

Free Images UK
Is this glass half-empty or half-full?
Source: Free Images UK

What is repetitive negative thinking? Over a two-year period, the researchers examined rumination of past events as well as worrying about the future. Many participants in the study had Positron Emission Tomography scans (PET) to measure levels of the amyloid proteins in the brain. These proteins matter because they are implicated in Alzheimer's

The results may surprise you. Subjects who ruminated most had the highest levels of amyloid proteins. These pessimistic thinkers also had significantly greater cognitive decline and worse functioning memory than did the optimistic thinkers. 

You might rightly wonder: What about depression and anxiety? Could these cause dementia since both can constitute repetitive negative thinking? 

Dr. Natalie Marchant, one of the study's lead researchers, says: "Taken alongside other studies, which link depression and anxiety with dementia risk, we expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk of dementia." 

Meditation and Mindfulness Put the Brakes on Rumination

As tools for limiting rumination, meditation and mindfulness practice can help. That's because they work by shifting one's attention away from rumination and back towards an awareness of the present moment. These practices have already been shown to be helpful for returning veterans by helping them overcome ruminating and anxious thoughts and return attention to the here and now, where they could recognize they were safe.

Basically, mindfulness activates the brain's salience network—an awareness of when your mind has wandered off to rumination and anxiety. Each time you notice rumination, you can get present-focused. Over time, this helps train the brain to stay present-oriented.

The more we practice presence, the more control we have over distractions and how we utilize our own attention. In my book, Reflect: Awaken to the Wisdom of the Here and Now, for example, there are over 100 reflections for turning away from rumination and energizing the prefrontal cortex—what I refer to as the "reflect and relate module" of the brain. Let's try a present moment reflection right now. 

3-Minute Reflection on the Here and Now

Minute 1:  Identify one ordinary thing or kindness from today. 

This can be one small thing you enjoyed or noticed, a leaf, a smile from someone, something that made you laugh, something of beauty that you saw, or something you shared with another.

Minute 2: How are you connected to that one small thing or kindness?

What is your relationship to the small thing or kindness you noticed? How did your experience with this enrich or enhance your life in even a subtle (or not so subtle) way?

Minute 3: Savor your experience for one minute as you connect with the breath.

For the final minute, stay connected to every little detail; imagine breathing in the sweetness, the beauty, the delight of your one small thing or kindness. Let your breath carry it into all the cells of your body.

By using this 3-Minute Reflection, you recall the good things that inhabit your day. Continue to notice the good, the small, the beautiful things that are around you today. Do this and you not only overcome negativity—you become a beacon of light and lightness for others.