Worried about life problems? This online course will help you stop

Science and Health

Many people spend a lot of time mulling over their personal problems and worrying. If repeated dwelling on negative feelings, situations, and events don’t lead to an answer or help you feel better, then it’s unproductive, 

An online course designed to curb negative thinking developed in Australia, however, has had strong results in helping people reduce the time they spend ruminating and worrying. The developers even say that the online course will soon be hosted on the Australian government-funded online clinic. Called “This Way Up,” it was found to significantly improve the mental health of the people who participated in the study. The trial was part of a collaboration of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Black Dog Institute and the clinical research unit for anxiety and depression at St. Vincent’s Health Network.

The program features three lessons to be completed over a six-week period, with the aim of helping participants to minimize their levels of rumination (dwelling on past negative experiences) and worry (thinking over and over about bad things happening in future).

How does an online course help you stop negative thinking?

Prof. Jill Newby, a clinical psychologist with UNSW’s School of Psychology, said when the call went out to recruit people for the randomized controlled trial that the team was inundated with applications. “Out of all the research we’ve done on online therapies, this is by far the most popular program we’ve done,” she added. “We got way more applicants for what we could manage in a very quick timeframe, so it’s clear there is a community need for help with rumination and worry.”

Their study, just published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, was published under the title “Managing Rumination and worry: A randomized controlled trial of an internet intervention targeting repetitive negative thinking delivered with and without clinician guidance.”

Stress, illustrative (credit: PIXNIO)

The researchers recruited 137 adults who were experiencing elevated levels of repetitive negative thinking. They were randomly allocated to one of three groups – a clinician-guided, three-lesson online course delivered over six weeks; the same course but without the assistance of a clinician; or a control group who received the online course after an 18-week waiting period.

The researchers found that 80% of the participants who did the online course with or without the assistance of a clinician reported significantly lower levels of repetitive negative thoughts, depression, and distress immediately following the course, and at the three-month follow-up. 

Those in the group that had the assistance of the clinician showed the best results. Newby said clinicians spent an average total of 48 minutes across the six-week period helping participants, suggesting such a program can be delivered relatively easily and at scale. The results in the two groups who did the online course also compared favorably with the control group who did not show the same rates of improvement.

“We’ve known for years now that online programs can help improve mental health. But this is one of the first that specifically focuses on rumination and worry. There were a couple of previous studies that were done in the UK to prevent mental illness in young people, but this is the first that focused on all-aged adults and that was used as an intervention program,” Newby explained.

The content of the online course was presented in an illustrated comic-style story that follows two fictional characters who learn to better manage rumination and worry. Following each lesson, participants downloaded a lesson summary and action plan they would then practice in the upcoming week.

Lead researcher of the study, clinical psychologist Dr Amy Joubert, added that “just becoming aware of it and labelling it as a type of thinking can actually help people manage it. The next thing we give them is a few rules of thumb about when to move from that type of thinking to something else. So if you find yourself ruminating or worrying about things and it has really eaten up a lot of your time, it is likely becoming very distressing. We suggest moving on to something else – channel it into a new action.”

The new action might be problem solving like figuring out what one can do to solve the issue that is being fretted about. But if there’s no obvious solution, participants are encouraged to find a distraction like a change of environment, talking to someone, or a new activity. The goal is to get out of your head and focus on the new activities,” Joubert said.

“The next step we’d like to take is potentially tailoring the program to specific populations. For example, helping people manage their climate anxiety or worries during pregnancy. We want to look at different types of worries, try to figure out who the program works best for, and how we can deliver it at scale to as many people as possible,” Newby concluded.