In a previous blog, I discussed the evolution of depression and its relevance to us. In it, I briefly mentioned metacognitive therapy. I suggested that stopping destructive rumination cycles was effective in helping to get out of depression.
I want to break this down further and provide a better understanding of metacognitive therapy. More importantly, I want to provide some techniques based on the metacognitive approach that anyone can use. These can be used for a wide range of problems but seem to be very effective around anxiety disorders and depression.
The first step is to understand what metacognitive therapy is. Essentially metacognitive references how we think about our own thoughts. For example, we believe that our worry about an external event is beneficial to us. We may justify this by saying that it prepares us for something that goes wrong.
While a therapeutic approach like cognitive behavioural therapy will challenge beliefs, it does so differently. The cognitive behavioural approach might suggest that the outcome of something going wrong isn’t that bad. It might challenge the chances of that occurring to help reduce anxiety.
The metacognitive approach suggests that thinking about it at all is unhelpful. Instead, the challenge would be that worrying about it can’t change the outcome. Alternatively, the suggestion might be that the person has worried enough and any more is pointless.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t about avoiding a problem. It’s understanding that when we are in a negative state of mind, rumination often makes it worse. It’s realising that rumination in a negative state of mind almost never leads to improvement.
You get into negative cycles that just reinforce themselves. The starting point is critically important. What state of mind you are in and how you’re thinking about it will dictate whether the thought is worth exploring.
In other words, let’s say you’re not feeling good about yourself on a particular day. Cognitive behavioural therapy tends to focus on that thought and challenge it directly. Why did you think that? Is it based on any truth? If not, then what is the truth?
This can be useful and particularly effective in therapy or discussion with someone else who can challenge those views from a different perspective. In this regard, rumination is useful, as long as you follow that principle of challenging the negative thoughts and unravelling them into a more constructive position.
However, the starting point is critically important. Sometimes it’s quite easy to challenge a viewpoint, other times it is near impossible. I believe this largely comes down to the current state of mind. Having these kinds of thoughts suggests a generally negative state of mind.
We often think of emotions as in some kind of balance, happiness and sadness are in a counteractive balance. But this really isn’t the case. While there are some directly opposing emotions, most are actually independent of one another. They may interact but they are not directly in opposition to cancel each other out.
Due to this independence, you can experience emotions in tandem that often seem counter-intuitive. For example, you can be happy seeing family members that you haven’t seen in a long time while attending a funeral where you obviously feel generally sad.
So you can be in a depressed state of mind in which you think you are, for example unattractive. Alongside that you can feel anxious, perhaps you have to go do something around people and are feeling scared of being judged. You can also feel relaxed or motivated, maybe you just accomplished something unrelated that’s left you disheveled but experiencing the drive for change.
The same thought can come through in these very different experiences. On one hand, you’re going to dive straight into a negative cycle of rumination, worrying what others will think, feeling bad about yourself, etc. On the other hand, you’re going to have a very different experience that might lead to positive change.
The key is that whatever initial state of mind you are in will alter how you perceive thoughts and emotions you are experiencing subsequently. That, in turn, influences how effective you will be in challenging and changing them into productive thoughts. Especially if you are doing it on your own through self-practice.
So this takes us back to the metacognitive approach, you’re not avoiding the problem. What you’re doing is realising that in certain states, at certain times, it isn’t productive or helpful to ruminate and focus on these thoughts. At these times, it’s much better to move on and you can come back and challenge these ideas later once in a better state.
So the big question is how do we go about doing all of this? How can you stop thinking negative thoughts once they pop up realising that you’re only making yourself feel worse?
There are a number of clinical therapies that are used that are built around our sensory processing systems. The best approach for self-practice, however, is built around specific types of meditation.
I say specific types intentionally because we all have different views of meditation, what it is, how to do it and what it can actually help with. I think most people’s experience with it is really around relaxation, however, if it is used in certain ways it can become much more than that.
There are three types I want to discuss, the first two are directly related to training attention. The final is towards orientating our attention to positive things rather than negative.
The first is focused attention meditation. This is probably what most people are familiar with even if they don’t know much about meditation. The most common starting place is to focus on your breathing. Essentially the idea is to focus on one thing and any time your mind starts to wander you correct it and return to the focus.
Breathing is common as said because it is simple and internal. This practice can be done nearly anywhere and if practiced regularly for short periods can be very beneficial.
It can be done on anything. Focus on a body part, each body part specifically working through the whole body. You also don’t have to focus internally. You can also look outwardly and focus on something external- a common one is a candle flame. Focus on it and nothing else.
As you get better at this it is useful to do it outdoors, in different and busier environments. Take your time and build it up slowly. Don’t try and meditate for 30 minutes in your first attempt. Do it for five minutes, take a break and come back another time. Consistent practice each day is much more effective than trying to do long stints of this.
The second type is open awareness meditation. This is effectively the opposite. You try not to focus on any one thing but simply acknowledge everything that is going on around you. The idea here is to be present in the moment and just let everything move past you. You are aware of it but not focusing, not dwelling on it.
If you feel yourself lingering on any one thing, the cat that just ran past or the strange noise in the background. Try to pull yourself back to everything else. The trick here is not to try and ‘stop’ focusing on something. Instead, realise you are lingering on it and quickly start looking and acknowledging everything else around.
One trick is to think of something that flows naturally. Imagine a river that has a small blockage. This is you getting stuck on a thought. Now remove the blockage and let the water run clear again.
Take your time with this, there is no good or bad, just practice. Don’t worry too much about how hard it feels or whether you’re making good progress or not, just practice consistently and regularly.
As you can see, both of these will train your ability to focus on specific things and help pull you away from focusing on others. In this way, you can change your focus from negative thoughts. You can then shift your attention to more positive thoughts and stop the rumination cycle.
The final meditation type I want to mention is a little different. It’s known as Maitri and is a practice in Buddhism that is supposed to develop your love and goodwill towards everyone around you.
The practice is pretty simple, you visualise a person and then silently repeat positive affirmations towards this person. You can start with yourself, then other people you love. Then you can move onto people you know, and finally, onto people you don’t really know. You can even take this on to people who have angered, upset or annoyed you.
In Buddhism, this is to develop the Paramita which are noble characteristics of enlightened beings. However, there is evidence that this practice has positive effects on us. It can help with emotional regulation and to look at the positive side of events and people.
You can see that through this practice we are more likely to view things in a positive way, including ourselves. We become accustomed to saying positive affirmations instead of negative thoughts like, ‘I’m not good enough.’ This is about changing those cognitive beliefs themselves.
Practice these three techniques. You don’t have to do them all at once. Focus on one for a while, develop it until it becomes fairly comfortable and then work on another. Develop all three and you’ll really master your emotional attention. This will hopefully lead to improvements in areas of your life that you never even considered.
Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2011). Fixing our focus: Training attention to regulate emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(1), 75-102.