Many mental illnesses including depression and the anxiety disorders are maintained by intrusive negative thoughts. These thoughts generally fit into a cyclical process that usually includes behaviours, emotions and situations and for in the case of anxiety, bodily sensations. For instance consider a person who has a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder. This person may have negative thoughts regarding a situation that they are about to find themselves in (e.g. If I go to the party, everyone will laugh at me). These thoughts may lead to that person experiencing physical symptoms of their anxiety such as shaking or sweating. These symptoms and negative thoughts will then cause that person to feel extreme worry which will further cause that person to behave in a way that reducing this feeling (i.e. avoids the party altogether).
This cyclical process is maintained by each factor within the system. Many psychotherapies such as the now prominent Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) aim to treat disorders such as GAD by helping clients to break this cycle through targeting one or more of the components including negative thoughts. Typically clients are encouraged to challenge their negative thoughts. They do this by isolating their negative thoughts and examining them in order to evaluate whether these thoughts are subject to patterns of distorted thinking. This method for targeting negative thoughts has garnered significant support both in research and clinical settings. However focus has shifted towards understanding alternative processes for disrupting the negative thought patterns that are found in disorders such as GAD.
One such process is the active replacement of negative thinking with positive thinking. Research has demonstrated that negative thoughts such as those associated with excessive worry are predominately verbal which causes them to be more intrusive and more frequent. Based on the power of verbal negative thinking, a team of researchers led by Claire Eagleson from King’s College London, aimed to examine what effectiveness strategic positive thinking would have as a replacement. Claire and her team placed volunteers with GAD into three experimental groups who were then subjected to an intervention that involved them countering their worries with either verbal positive thoughts or positive imagery related to their worries or alternatively practicing positive imagery that was unrelated to their worries. Interestingly, Claire and her team found that while none of the groups impacted significantly on the severity of the intrusive negative thoughts when they appeared, each group did report significant reductions in overall frequency of the negative thoughts.
These findings signify that active and concentrated replacement of negative verbal worries with positive ideation (regardless of its content) may have lasting effects on the cyclical process maintaining anxiety. This process represents an improved ability to disengage with the negative thoughts that plague individuals who are experiencing symptoms of a mental disorder. This evidence supports the inclusion of an alternative to the more confrontational process of challenging negative thoughts which is incorporated into most current clinical practices.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.