People with depression think in more abstract terms during rumination

In my clinical practice, it is common for people with depression to frequently ruminate about their sense of self-worth.  For instance, one of my clients with depression suffered from sleep disturbance because he tended to ruminate when he was in bed.  Whenever he closed his eyes, he started thinking about his perceived failures in his life and kept thinking, “I am worthless” and “I am a failure”.  As a result, he tended to overgeneralize in his thinking as he selectively focused on all of his previous setbacks in life.  He jumped to broad conclusion that he was worthless and a failure due to this overgeneralization.  In fact, his thinking process during rumination while he was in bed mostly involved abstract thinking.  He tried very hard to make sense of his current depressive mood and sleep disturbance by ruminating about “Why”.  He kept asking, “Why did this happen to me?”, “Why I cannot fall asleep as soon as possible?”, and “Why I am such a failure?”.

Abstract thinking process is one of the common thinking styles of all of us in our daily lives.  Abstract thinking tends to be general and global.  It involves generating reasons, meanings and implications of behaviors and phenomenon.  In clinical setting, abstract thinking is more common when people are ruminating during their depressive episodes.  Sometimes, they ruminate in abstract terms because they want to figure out the reasons behind their repeated negative experiences or their recurrent depressive mood.  It is not totally unproductive to think about the underlying reasons for one’s negative experiences or recurrent depression.  However, when this type of abstract thinking style becomes ruminative, people cannot pull themselves out of this spiral and end up trapping in a very depressive state.  It is because it does not lead the person to actions in solving the problem or behaviors to alleviating the depressive mood.

Compared with abstract thinking process, concrete thinking is more specific and focuses more on methods and actions.  It also involves thinking about the process and sequence of an event or an experience, so that it is a more direct experience of the situation.  For example, when we think in concrete terms, we tend to ask, “How did this happen?”, and “How can I do something about it?”.  For the client above, when he cannot fall asleep, a more concrete thinking process would be trying to think about how can he do something about his sleep disturbance.  If he tried to think in this concrete term, he might be able to recall our discussion of letting go of his intention to try to fall asleep and start to bring his awareness to his breathing and bodily sensations.  As a result, this concrete thinking process helped him to take some useful actions to fall asleep.  Without keep ruminating about the “Why”, he might be able to fall asleep sooner through being more mindful in his present moment experience in bed.

Rumination is more likely when people think in abstract terms.  It is because abstract thinking makes the person not to focus on specific details of the situation.  This type of thinking does not provide the clue for concrete actions one can take to solve the problem.  Indeed, abstract thinking leads to more thinking due to the focus on meanings and implications of a particular problem.  Rumination perpetuated when thinking leads to more thinking rather than leading to concrete actions.

For people with depression, it is important for them to learn how to reengage themselves in more concrete thinking.  In this way, it keeps things in perspective so that they do not jump into conclusion about themselves as a failure prematurely.  By bringing awareness to the specific details of a particular situations also helps them to spot the difference between the current event and other situations.  This helps them not to overgeneralize their negative experiences. 

For all of us, we need to cultivate a balance between our abstract and concrete thinking.  If we find ourselves being trapped in thinking about a problem without generating details and concrete actions, we may reflect whether our thinking is too abstract.  This makes us less likely to get into a spiral of depressive rumination.

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