Two psychological strategies can curb negative thoughts

New research shows that two types of psychological strategies — cognitive restructuring and defusion — can help people cope with negative thoughts.

Heading a team of Swedish scientists, Andreas Larsson points out that up to 99 percent of the world’s population may experience negative thoughts. These ideas are the kind of unwanted thoughts that occur regularly, such as worrying about being unloved by others. At worst, these thoughts can even contribute to the formation of mental illnesses. As a result, it makes sense to try to manage these thoughts. In a study published in December of 2015 in Behavior Modification, Larsson’s team reported that they found support for using certain methods to curb these types of negative thoughts.

Larsson’s team gathered together 71 subjects for their study and split them evenly into three different groups. Every participant in the study was then instructed to come up with a negative thought about themselves. This thought needed to be believable, uncomfortable to have, extremely negative, and not about their physical bodies. Importantly, the thought also needed to be something the subjects didn’t want to thinking about.

The subjects in two of the groups were then given instructions about using cognitive restructuring or defusion to manage their thoughts. The third group received no instructions on how to manage their thoughts at all.

Cognitive restructuring stems from a form of therapy called cognitive-behavior therapy. The technique is based on the idea that changing how someone thinks about something will change how they feel and behave relating to that thing. Using this technique involves thinking about the negative thought itself and evaluating it to see if the thought is realistic or not.

Defusion is based on acceptance and commitment therapy. The idea behind this technique is to learn to view thoughts as nothing more than ideas. There is no need to address them as they don’t mean nearly as much as people commonly think that they do. A common thing people using defusion do is constantly repeating a word until it loses some of its meaning. This way, they may spot some of their beliefs concerning that idea.

Larsson’s team found that people who had been trained to use defusion and cognitive restructuring dealt with negative thoughts far better than those who had received no training. Even so, defusion was the more efficient technique of the two. As such, people looking to deal with negative thoughts might want to use defusion over cognitive restructuring although both appear to address these types of thoughts well.