Intrusive or unwanted thoughts are a common human experience. They often appear out of the blue, and in most cases, they tend to be unpleasant and unwanted. Unwanted thoughts and images can cause distress, especially when they force you to think about past traumatic or distressing events.
Sometimes these thoughts can be associated with psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nevertheless, intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life despite the distress they can cause, and it is possible for you to control them.
According to a study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, most people employ a technique that isn’t very effective when they have intrusive thoughts: reactive thought control. This usually involves rejecting an unwanted thought after it has reached your consciousness and replacing it with another thought.
However, the researchers found that proactive control, which involves preventing unwanted thoughts from popping into your mind in the first place, is a more effective means of dealing with unwanted thoughts.
Dr. Lauren Wadsworth, University of Rochester Medical Center’s clinical senior instructor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, stated that while intrusive thoughts were quite common, persistent unwanted thoughts can point to psychiatric disorders. The new study revealed that while reactive control can prevent unwanted thoughts from immediately popping up again, proactive control keeps these thoughts from reaching your consciousness at all.
The study, whose discoveries were reported in “PLOS Computational Biology,” acknowledges that achieving full proactive control isn’t easy, a sentiment that was shared by most of the study participants. The study involved 80 paid volunteers who were divided into two groups and given a creative task to help them reduce the rate at which certain unwanted thoughts occurred. Each participant was shown 60-word cues on a computer screen one at a time and asked to write a word that was associated with each of the cue words.
The individuals in one test group were allowed to use the same associated word after the cue words were repeated while the test group had to think of a new associated word every time they saw a cue word. The test group was informed that they wouldn’t receive any bonus compensation if they reused associated words to encourage them to think of new ones.
Researchers timed how long it took each participant to think of an associated word and asked them to rate how much each associated word reminded them of the cue word on a scale of 0-10 to determine associative strength. The researchers found that while exercising reactive thought control could reduce reaction time, proactive thought control kept the unwanted thought from appearing in the first place.
The researchers suggested distracting a person or making them think about something else to help reduce unwanted thoughts. They said that even though more research will be needed to further examine their findings, this is concrete proof that the brain has the power to keep intrusive thoughts from spiraling.
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