Does worrying improve understanding?
Besides reducing negative outcomes, other possible reasons I can think of that might support these “shoulds” are increasing understanding and preventing repeats of negative events that have already occurred. However, it seems unlikely that these thought processes are rational and/or reasonable enough to actually improve outcomes.
A major problem with the aim to increase understanding is that these thought processes are too close to the trees to see the forest. They’re not just close to the trees, they’re hugging and perhaps even trying to hump them. It seems rather unlikely that from this perspective one might achieve a greater understanding of the issue in question. Instead, you’ll just get distracted by the moss growing on the trunk of the tree that’s rubbing your face and the splinters that are jabbing you in the ribs.
Does it improve outcomes?
So, that’s the insight side of things; how about reducing the risk of negative outcomes?
The problem with repetitive thinking patterns like worry and rumination is that they’re very problem-focused. They keep you running around on the hamster wheel that is the problem, unlikely to notice the off-ramp that leads to solution-ville. Sure, you need to think about a problem in order to come up with potential solutions, but that solution endpoint needs to be front of mind. Otherwise, you’re just expending endless energy on that problem hamster wheel.
Mental illness in particular can make it easy to automatically fall into these thought patterns. However, let’s say that you do have some mental flexibility available to shift to a more solution-oriented way of thinking. What might that look like?
One way would be to use problem-solving tools like a decisional balance grid to keep the focus on generating a solution rather than mulling over the problem.
I find it helpful to mentally distance myself from the situation and take a contemplative approach. It’s kind of like climbing a tree so I get a view of the forest and leaving the emotional intensity down by the forest floor. Unlike worry, where I’m trapped on the forest floor and chasing my figurative tail around a tree, from the treetop I’m able to gain actual insight into a situation and identify ways to manage it.
As much as I’d love to be a rockstar tree climber, I can’t always make it to the treetop. The environments that are most conducive to this are restorative yoga class and sitting outside on sunny days watching tree leaves dance in the breeze.
It feels very different to have this kind of detached, contemplative perspective as opposed to repetitive negative thought patterns. It feels like I’m making progress rather than feeling like I might make progress if I keep mentally chewing at the issue long enough.
So, should you engage in repetitive negative thought patterns in order to make some sort of progress? I say no. If you’re going to “should” yourself into doing something, you’re probably better off getting your tree-climbing gear ready.
Do you tend to have these kinds of “shoulds”?
The CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy concepts along with workbook exercises.