Worries on your mind

Chronic worrying or ruminating could be bad for your brain. A study published online June 7, 2020, by Alzheimer’s & Dementia linked these negative thinking patterns to brain changes that could be associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Study authors found that older adults who regularly engaged in what the authors called repetitive negative thinking were more likely to experience cognitive decline, including memory problems, than those who didn’t. They also had higher levels of the proteins beta-amyloid and tau in their brains. The accumulation of these proteins, which create damaging clumps known as plaques and tangles in the brain, is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s that begins in the earliest stages of the disease — even before an individual experiences visible symptoms of dementia.

Past research has suggested a link between anxiety and depression and higher incidence of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, says Dr. Jennifer R. Gatchel, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. People with anxiety and depression commonly experience repetitive negative thinking, so the findings in this sense aren’t totally surprising.

“I was, however, somewhat surprised by the robust relationship that study authors found between repetitive negative thinking and cognitive decline even after adjusting for Alzheimer’s risk factors. That was striking to me,” says Dr. Gatchel, who is also a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital.

However, it’s too soon to say whether these negative thinking patterns actually caused the brain problems researchers saw.

“This is a well-done study, but it does have limitations,” she says.

First, it’s an observational study, which means that while the researchers found associations between cognitive decline, brain protein levels, and negative thinking patterns, it doesn’t prove that negative thinking caused the changes in the brain and cognitive skills. For example, it’s entirely possible that the connection runs in a different direction — for instance, that brain protein buildup occurred first and caused both cognitive decline and negative thinking patterns.

Even so, the findings definitely warrant follow-up, says Dr. Gatchel. If repetitive negative thinking does affect the brain, it might be possible to intervene to prevent dementia.

“This will be an important area of future study,” she says.

About the study

The study included 360 healthy adults over age 55. Participants described how they typically thought about negative events using a specially designed questionnaire, which rated responses on a scale of 0 (never) to 4 (almost always). They were also asked to report any symptoms related to depression and anxiety. The researchers then tested the participants’ cognitive function over time. Some people also had their brains studied using PET scans to look for deposits of beta-amyloid and tau, the two troublesome proteins.

The researchers found that people who reported higher levels of repetitive negative thinking saw faster drops in both overall cognition and memory over four years than those with lower scores on the questionnaire. These people also had higher amounts of beta-amyloid and tau buildup in their brains. Interestingly, the researchers found that while people who experienced depression and anxiety also saw a drop in their cognitive abilities and memory scores, these symptoms themselves were not linked to higher levels of the harmful brain proteins.

The role of stress

Worrying and ruminating thought patterns can often be triggered by stress, says Dr. Gatchel. This type of thinking is actually a coping mechanism for some people — albeit not a particularly helpful one. The researchers speculated that the link between negative thinking and stress might be at the root of the changes they saw. Repetitive negative thinking might also cause chronic stress, they said, which prompts the body to release hormones that interact with other substances in the body to cause the buildup of proteins in the brain. The researchers noted, though, that this is not something that would happen if you experience a short period of stress related to a particular event. Rather, it probably results from a chronic pattern over a longer period of time.

Encouraging positive thinking

So, what should you do if you think you are in the habit of worrying and ruminating? There are numerous steps you can take to change these unhealthy patterns, improve your mental and emotional health, and keep your brain healthy, says Dr. Gatchel.

Recognize the problem. First, get an accurate sense of how often you are engaging in negative thought patterns. Ask yourself: Do you worry excessively about the future, without coming up with a constructive plan to address it, or regularly stew about past events that you can’t change? Are your thoughts intrusive? Do they interfere with your everyday life? Do these thoughts occur one or two weeks at a time, on more days than not? If so, you may be experiencing repetitive negative thinking, and being aware of the problem is the first step toward solving it.

Identify new strategies. If you do think you are falling into this negative thinking pattern, you can develop alternative routines to break the cycle, almost like adopting a new habit. For example, if you start having negative thoughts, you could shift gears and distract yourself by listening to music, reading, or talking to a friend or family member.

Set a limit. Understand that from time to time, it’s fine to acknowledge negative thoughts and worries. But when these thoughts and worries arise, try setting a limit on how long you allow yourself to focus on them. For example, say, “I’ll think about this concern or talk to a friend about this from noon to 1 p.m. today, but then I have to move on to something else,” Dr. Gatchel suggests.

Put it in perspective. When you are anxious, it’s easy to shift into catastrophic thinking. For example, you might worry that everyone in your family will become severely ill and die from COVID-19. It can help to challenge this type of catastrophic thinking with actual facts and evidence. Instead of jumping to a worst-case scenario, try instead to paint a more realistic picture.

Some people find it helpful to develop simple plans to solve a worst-case scenario as well. This provides a sense of control.

Adopt brain-healthy habits. Many of the steps you follow to protect your physical health are also effective in promoting your overall mental well-being and brain health. These include following a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, engaging in regular physical activity, socializing with friends and family, getting adequate sleep, being open to engaging in new experiences, and participating in activities that provide you with a sense of joy and purpose.

“Adopting any new habit is challenging,” says Dr. Gatchel. Be patient with yourself and consider using strategies such as teaming up with a partner who can help hold you accountable, scheduling specific activities on your calendar, and rewarding yourself for progress.

Seek help. The ideas listed above are the core principles behind a practice known as cognitive behavioral therapy, says Dr. Gatchel. If you aren’t successful in changing your thought patterns on your own, you might want to consult a mental health professional. She or he can help you find better ways to cope with stress and anxiety, which can promote greater well-being — and potentially protect your brain in the process.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Acts 4:18-31 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”     

2 Chronicles 25:19 “You said, ‘Behold, you have defeated Edom.’ And your heart has become proud in boasting. Now stay at home; for why should you provoke trouble so that you, even you, would fall and Judah with you?”

1 Samuel 2:3 “Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the LORD is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed.

Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 16:5 Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; Assuredly, he will not be unpunished.

Micah 2:3 Therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am planning against this family a calamity From which you cannot remove your necks; And you will not walk haughtily, For it will be an evil time.

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