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Perseverative cognition is a collective term in scientific psychology for continuous thinking about negative events in the past or in the future (e.g. worry, rumination and brooding, but also mind wandering about negative topics). Perseverative cognition has been shown to have physiological effects, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, in daily life as well as under controlled laboratory conditions. Because of these physiological effects, the psychological concept of perseverative cognition helps to explain how psychological stress, such as work stress and marital stress, leads to disease, such as cardiovascular disease (see below: the 'perseverative cognition hypothesis').
The definition of perseverative cognition is: "the repeated or chronic activation of the cognitive representation of one or more psychological stressors". Worry, rumination and all other forms of thought (cognition) involving stressful events, in the past or in the future, fall under the definition of perseverative cognition. 'Just thinking about your problems, without calling it worrying or rumination', is also perseverative cognition, as is mind wandering when it concerns negative topics. Importantly, there is a large body of knowledge about the typical constituents of perseverative cognition, such as worry, rumination, repetitive thinking and (negative) mind wandering (reviewed in Watkins, 2008). Perseverative cognition may partly be unconscious. Just as people are not aware of the larger part of their thoughts (cognition), they may also not be aware of the cognitive representation of stressors.
The 'perseverative cognition hypothesis' holds that stressful events cannot affect people's health, unless they think repetitively or continuously (that is, 'perseverate cognitively') about these stressful events. Stressful events themselves are often too short, as are the physiological responses to them. Therefore the physiological responses during these stressors are unlikely to cause bodily harm. More importantly, many stressful events are merely worried about, or feared in the future, while they often do not happen or do not have the feared consequences. Nevertheless, the body reacts with prolonged physiological responses to continuous thoughts (perseverative cognition) about these stressors. Therefore it is the perseverative cognition, and not the stressors that can eventually lead to disease. In scientific terms, it is said that perseverative cognition is a mediator of the detrimental effects of stress on one's health. Since its publication scientific evidence for this hypothesis has been accumulating.
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