Distracting teens, getting them ‘unstuck’ from negative thought spirals

Science and Health

A recent study from Oregon State University found that mental imagery is a more effective distraction than verbal thoughts for teens who get stuck in negative thought spirals.

Negative thought spirals can make people feel worse and lead to difficulties regulating their emotions and bodies. By providing short-term distractions, such as mental imagery, people can seek help from therapists, friends, or parents.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, aimed to determine whether verbal thoughts or mental imagery-based thoughts caused a greater drop in the adolescent participants’ general mood and which was more effective at distracting them and helping them break out of negative moods.

“When we get stuck thinking about negative things that happened in the past, that makes us feel even worse and it leads to more difficulties regulating our emotions and regulating our bodies,” lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, Hannah Lawrence said. “We want to connect people to some more comprehensive strategies or skills that could get us unstuck from those thinking problems.”

“These negative things are going to happen to all of us, so knowing ahead of time which tools we should pack in our toolbox that we can pull out to help lower our emotional reactions in the moment, just enough tot get us out of those loops, will help us get unstuck,” she continued.

What was the study and what did they find?

A group of 145 people between the ages of 13 to 17 and predominantly white and female participated in the study.

Researchers induced negative feelings in the participants and then asked them to either think about their negative experiences using mental imagery or words, or to distract themselves using mental imagery or words. The researchers monitored the teens’ heart rate and skin response to see how they reacted to the different types of thinking.

To encourage verbal thoughts, participants were asked to describe a lemon using specific words in their head. To encourage mental imagery, they were asked to imagine a lemon in different conditions.

The study found that while both verbal thought and imagery had a similar effect on mood, mental imagery was significantly more effective at distracting participants from negative thought spirals.

“Using mental imagery seems to help us improve our affect, as well as regulate our nervous system,” Lawrence explained. “The fact that we didn’t have a significant result for ruminating in imagery versus thought tells us that it doesn’t really matter what form those negative cognitions take. The part that seems really problematic is the getting-stuck part – dwelling over and over again on these sad or anxiety-inducing things that happen.”

While researchers don’t know exactly why mental imagery is so effective, they hypothesize that it requires more effort, thus creating a stronger emotional response and a bigger distraction. The fact that mental imagery seems to help improve affect and regulate the nervous system may be another reason for its effectiveness.

“If we can interrupt these processes early in development, maybe we can help these teens get to adulthood and not get stuck in these negative thinking patterns,” Lawrence said. “All of us ruminate. It’s a matter of how long we do it for and what skills we have to stop when we want to.”