Several researchers have shown that negative mood, anxiety, and distress can be associated with cognitive decline. Wilson and his colleague Patricia Boyle (both at Rush in Chicago) have shown with data from the Religious Orders Study that persons who are chronically distressed have a greater chance of cognitive decline.
At the Cognitive Aging Summit (sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and featuring NIA-supported research), Martin Sliwinski reported data that show that the specific aspect of emotional distress that may be linked to problems in thinking and memory is something called unconstructive repetitive thought (URT).
Although the term reeks of jargon, it is helpful because it helps us understand the difference between various types of worry, ruminating, or obsessing. URT means that someone thinks a lot about something that is upsetting, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
It’s a little like pushing at a sore tooth in your mouth – you know that you shouldn’t, and that if you don’t leave it alone, you may make it worse. But still, it’s hard to stop.
It’s easy to guess that repeatedly thinking about upsetting things (your boss or spouse yelling at you, an especially bad ride home on the freeway that involved someone cutting in front of you) might cause repeated releases of stress-related neurohormones and immune factors.
Since we know that many of these substances have the capacity to be neurotoxic, it’s a simple (though unproven) link from URT to cognitive impairment.
How do you deal with URT?
- First, pay attention to thoughts that bother you and are upsetting. You may be engaging in URT without realizing it. Ask yourself, Is thinking about this making my heart race or making me feel jumpy and angry? Notice what you’re thinking about.
- Second, decide whether thinking is going to resolve anything. Sometimes, thinking about something over and over can help you figure out a solution to a problem. But worrying over and over about something in the past or future that you can’t control just makes you miserable. No matter how much you think about something, you can’t change the past or control the future.
- Third, make a commitment to deal with thoughts if you can’t deal with the problem. If you’re want to spend time going over something in your mind over and over, schedule a time (maybe 15 minutes) and do so. Don’t do the thinking any other time. Usually, people who learn to relax through meditation or breathing can learn to stop their URT. Regular mediation practice can also help you stop.