Paint yourself a happy picture: Mental imagery can help teens avoid negative thoughts

CORVALLIS, Ore. — We all experience the occasional bad mood from time to time, but young teens can be especially vulnerable to the habit of dwelling on negative thoughts. Now, researchers from Oregon State University suggest that adolescents who often fall into negative thought spirals should try focusing on mental imagery as opposed to verbal thoughts to break out of this vicious cycle.

Study author Hannah Lawrence, an assistant professor of psychology in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, explains that a short-term distraction is usually all it takes to break up a thought spiral, allowing the individual to seek help from a therapist, friend, or parent.

“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,” Prof. Lawrence says in a university release. “We want to connect people to some more comprehensive strategies or skills that could get us unstuck from those thinking patterns.”

Prof. Lawrence runs the Translational Imagery, Depression and Suicide (TIDES) Lab at OSU, which studies depression in adolescents in terms of both risk factors and potential effective interventions, including treatments that could be scaled up so they’re accessible to a wider population.

“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 to get us out of those loops, will help us get unstuck,” the professor continues.

Depression, mental health
(Credit: Polina Zimmerman from Pexels)

4 in 10 teens were dealing with depressive symptoms

With this project, study authors originally set out to determine which form of negative rumination results in a greater decline among a teen’s general mood — verbal thoughts or imagery-based thoughts. Researchers also wanted to see which form of thought was more effective at distraction and helping the teens shake off their negative mood.

A total of 145 participants (ages 13-17) took part in the study. Study authors recruited the group from a rural area of New England where Prof. Lawrence conducted the research. The cohort was mostly White and 62 percent female. Teens also completed a depression survey, which revealed roughly 39 percent dealt with clinically elevated symptoms of depression.

To start, study authors sparked bad moods among the teens using an online game designed to create feelings of exclusion. It’s worth noting that after the study was over, researchers explained the game to the teens to hopefully alleviate any lingering hurt feelings.

Next, study authors separated the children into groups and prompted them to ruminate (think deeply), either via verbal thoughts or mental imagery, or asked the kids to distract themselves, also using verbal thoughts or mental imagery. The rumination group also received prompts including “Imagine the kind of person you think you should be.” Meanwhile, the distraction group received prompts such as “Think about your grocery list,” which were intended to distract them from their negative affect.

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In order to encourage verbal thoughts, the research team instructed participants to practice creating sentences in their head describing a lemon using specific words. To encourage mental imagery, participants had to practice imagining what a lemon would look like under different conditions.

The team used non-invasive sensors to record electrical activity of the heart and skin conductance response as a way to measure physiological responses to the various prompts. The participants also had to self-rate their current emotional affect at four different points in time during the study.

While there was no significant difference in the adolescents’ response between the two types of rumination (both verbal thoughts and mental imagery had a similar effect on moods), study authors note that mental imagery was significantly more effective as a distraction in comparison to verbal thoughts.

“Using mental imagery seems to help us improve our affect, as well as regulate our nervous system,” Prof. Lawrence comments. “The fact that we didn’t have a significant result for ruminating in imagery versus verbal 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.”

Teen boy sad, depressed, alone
(© Irina Polonina – stock.adobe.com)

Does imagery do a better job of sparking the mind?

Study authors can’t say why exactly mental imagery is so much more effective, but they theorize it’s because imagery is much more immersive and requires more effort, thus creating both a stronger emotional response and a bigger distraction. Some evidence also suggests imagining mental pictures lights up the same part of the brain as seeing and experiencing those same things in reality.

Over the course of her work, Prof. Lawrence has found that certain adults seem to ruminate in only one form, while most teens typically report ruminating in both verbal thoughts and mental imagery. One possible explanation, she says, is that these thought patterns become self-reinforcing habits, with either negative images or verbal messages becoming more ingrained over time.

“That’s why I like working with teenagers: 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,” Prof. Lawrence concludes. “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.”

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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