There are two types of perseverative thinking, which is difficulty disengaging from negative thinking:
1. Fear or worry about uncertain future events
2. Rumination, which is negative thinking about one's feelings or past events.
This can arise from a traumatic childhood, in which the child lives in an unpredictable environment and never feels safe. I used to engage in both.
As I worked on healing my trauma, I noticed that there were patterns to my thought processes. If I made a mistake or said something that somebody corrected me on, I would have an emotional reaction (typically fear) and start to worry. People would realize that I was an idiot. I would lose my job, I wouldn't be able to find another one. I would lose my house. I would lose everything. None of these fears were the least bit valid. However, each thought would increase my fear, and as the fear increased, the more dramatic and horrible the repercussions would become in my mind.
When a change would take place over which I had no control and I didn't know how it would impact me, I would immediately go to fear. My mind would engage in catastrophizing. I knew that what I was thinking was very unlikely to happen. But when I would tell myself that the scenarios that I was imagining weren't going to happen, the thought process would still continue.
If something happened that upset me, my mind would think about it obsessively for days, sometimes even weeks. The more I thought about it, the more it activated the emotions that I felt as a result of the event. I would deliberately try to change the subject, but my mind would go right back to it like a dog with a bone.
What I eventually came to understand was that this was happening because something had happened in my past that felt the same way as the current event in my life. But as a child, I didn't know how to process my emotions, so I repressed them. Repressed emotions don't go away on their own. You have to actively process them.
In the book "How Emotions Are Made," Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses what emotions are. When we experience something unknown for the first time, our brains guess what is happening based on our past experiences. This allows it to impose meaning on what is happening to us. When we have an experience of pleasure, such as eating a delicious bag of buttered, salted popcorn at the movies for the first time, we experience sensations in our bodies that we associate with pleasure. Our mind then predicts that when we put a handful of popcorn in our mouth in the future, we will experience that same pleasant taste.
However, if we go to another country where the popcorn at the movies is sugared instead of buttered and salted, and our mind is predicting that it will taste that delicious buttery, salty flavor. When instead we taste sugar, we may be tempted to spit the popcorn out. We may even experience sensations that our minds interpret as disgust.
The same thing happens when our bodies respond to a traumatic situation. We feel sensations that our brains interpreted as fear and/or anxiety. Children require a wise, loving adult to help them to process emotions that are overwhelming. If none is available, any time we feel those same sensations in the present, the mind predicts that we will be harmed. It doesn't matter if we logically, rationally know that we will not be harmed, or that harm is unlikely. Until that emotion is resolved, we will continue to have the same reaction.
This is what causes patterns of thought involving fear and worry about uncertain future events. If, as a child, we frequently experience change or uncertainty in conjunction with fear, anxiety, or physical harm, the mind predicts that change or uncertainty in our present is something to be fearful or anxious about. Rumination occurs when our present experiences cause the same sensations as a past unresolved emotion. Our minds fixate on the event because of the similarity in sensations and what the mind predicts the result will be.
Emotional Resolution (EmRes) is a technique that is incredibly effective at resolving those emotions that we couldn't resolve in the past. It uses viscero-somatic quieting, a natural process through which the body regulates its emotions to enable it to return to a state of calm. If we can allow ourselves to experience the physiological response to what is causing our negative emotional patterns, the body will automatically regulate itself. When we have that physiological response and nothing bad happens, the mind updates its prediction that something bad will happen.
For example, I worked with a client who had a fear of driving on freeways. She was fine when driving on regular roads, but when she felt the car speed up on an onramp to a freeway, even if she wasn't driving, she would experience extreme anxiety. In the session, I had her tell me about a recent experience in which she was a passenger in a car, and the driver was getting on to the freeway. When she started feeling anxious, I told her to close her eyes, and notice the sensations that she was feeling in her body. Her heart was racing, she felt nauseous, and her shoulders felt tense. I instructed her to focus on all the sensations at the same time and do nothing. By not controlling her sensations and allowing them to change, and paying intense attention to her sensations as they changed, her body soon calmed itself. Her mind updated the prediction that something bad would happen to "nothing will happen", and she was able to drive on freeways without anxiety.
With perseverative thinking, the process is the same. If you notice that you are worrying about the future or thinking about something that happened or how you feel repetitively, you can close your eyes, notice the sensations in your body. When you pay intense attention to them without trying to control them and without thinking about the situation, your body will quickly become calm. When you have cPTSD, you may find that you can resolve the negative emotion in the current situation, but the pattern still recurs. In this case, an EmRes practitioner to assist you in identifying deeper issues that are causing the patterns.
Some of my clients ask me what will happen when the deeper issues are resolved. It is different for everybody, because the impact of perseverative thinking isn't the same for everybody. But what will definitely happen is that you will experience immense relief. It is noticeable on different levels for different people. I would find myself noticing that I was responding differently to situations which would have caused perseverative thinking patterns in the past.
Just a few weeks ago, I received an email that, a few years ago, would have had me in an emotionally downward spiral. I just shrugged, deleted it, and thought, "I will just have to wait and see how this impacts me. It may have no impact at all." This was a much better reaction than my mind going to, "I'm going to lose everything!"
What impact do perseverative thought patterns have on your life?