When Our Crazy World Gives You Bad Thoughts

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Sitting at home in lockdown, wanting to get stuff done… but distracted by your thoughts? Which are increasingly ‘doom and gloom’?

Should you be worried about your growing habit of negative thinking?

The art of negative thinking

We all have negative thoughts now and then. Life is hard, we get upset and angry, and our thoughts can reflect this.

But if your thoughts are increasingly negative, and spending time ‘lost in doom and gloom thoughts’ is a new pastime? Then you might be caught up in what psychologists call ‘ruminating’.

What is ruminating?

Ruminating is a repetitive cycle of negative thinking that is hard to stop. This can look like trying to predict what will happen in the future, or going over the same past situation again and again.

Ruminating is different than problem solving as you don’t come to a useful conclusion or an action step so you can move on. You just find more things to worry about or beat yourself up for.

Are my doom and gloom thoughts normal?

A bit of doom and gloom thinking, given the pandemic, is normal. It’s a tough time for many right now, and there are so many unknowns.

It’s normal to spend some time ruminating over all the things we did wrong to end up in an uncomfortable lockdown situation ("If only I moved house, went to the country, didn’t instigate a breakup so I am alone").

Or to worry about our uncertain future. "What will society look like? Can I cope with what is ahead?".

An American study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology directly linked stressful experiences to a rise in rumination in both adolescents and adults, for up to a year later.

Cognitive distortions

One of the ways to know that your ruminating is out of control is to notice if you are having manycognitive distortions’, a word that psychologists use to describe thoughts that deviate from reality.

Doom and gloom thinking is a cognitive distortion. Some others the pandemic can lead to are:

  • trying to predict the future (I will lose my job completely and have no money)
  • black and white thinking (the pandemic has totally destroyed my chances of finding love)
  • over generalising (most people who get sick from Covid-19 die)
  • ignoring the positive (everyone is a covidiot).

[To learn more about cognitive distortions and how to get them under control, try the NHS Scotland's worksheets on unhelpful thoughts].

Is negative thinking dangerous?

Negative thinking isn’t ‘dangerous’ unless it leads to hurting ourselves or someone else. We can have wildly negative thoughts that remain just thoughts, and that is ok.

The worry comes when ruminating becomes a sign of anxiety or depression.

When doom and gloom thinking becomes depression

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) clearly explains how negative thinking becomes a ‘loop’ that leaves us depressed.

  1. We have a negative thought.
  2. It gives us a negative emotion.
  3. Which leads to a negative action.
  4. That leads to a another negative thought….

If we don’t recognise we are in a ‘negative thought loop’, it continues until we don’t see a way out and are depressed.

Notice if your negative thinking has become about yourself. If you think that you aren’t loveable and will have no friends after the pandemic, or you are too different to cope, and your life isn’t worth living. This sort of introspection is a sign of depression and it’s time to seek support.

When bad thoughts become anxiety disorder

Are your negative thoughts becoming more and more irrational? Are you not just thinking, “I might lose my job because of the pandemic”, but “I am going to lose my job, lose my apartment, I am going to end up living on the street, and then my teeth will fall out”? It’s a sign of anxiety.

Stay alert for bodily reactions to your bad thoughts. Do you constantly feel fear? Is your heart often pounding, your palms sweating, do you have muscle tension? Anxiety is also a physical experience.

Am I a bad person to have bad thoughts?

You are not a bad person for thinking weird, dark or even violent things. Believe it or not, we all have such intrusive thoughts now and then. Thoughts that remain in our head are just thoughts.

But if you ever think you might act on your thoughts, and hurt yourself or someone else? This is a different situation. Seek help immediately, by calling emergency services or a help line.

Sick of your head full of negative thoughts, and need to talk to someone who understands? Book an online therapist now, and talk your way to feeling better.

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