Teenagers are often vulnerable to spirals of negative thoughts, but new research suggests a possible solution: mental imagery.
The Study on Mental Imagery for Teens
Oregon State’s Hannah Lawrence, an assistant professor of psychology, spearheaded the study. The results indicated that shifting focus to mental imagery acts is a strong distractor. In fact, it’s more of a distraction than simple verbal thoughts for adolescents trapped in negative ruminations.
Lawrence’s insights shine a light on a significant issue. Drowning in past regrets not only deepens one’s sorrow but also makes emotional regulation a greater challenge.
Introducing brief diversions, especially in the form of mental imagery, offers a momentary break from these cyclic patterns. This could potentially facilitate a bridge to more extensive help through therapy, familial support, or friendships.
Published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the research aimed to contrast the impact of verbal thoughts and imagery-based thoughts on the general mood of adolescent participants.
The study encompassed 145 participants, aged 13 to 17, predominantly white, with 62% females. These individuals were from a rural New England area. A striking 39% displayed symptoms consistent with clinical depression.
The mood-setting phase involved an online game, inducing feelings of exclusion among the participants. Subsequently, they were divided into groups, engaging in either rumination or distraction exercises using either verbal or imagery-based prompts.
For rumination, a prompt might be “Imagine the kind of person you think you should be.” For distraction, it could be as mundane as “Think about your grocery list.”
Key Findings on the Power of Mental Imagery
The research found that both forms of rumination (verbal and imagery) affected the participants’ moods similarly. However, mental imagery stood out as a more potent form of distraction.
Lawrence noted, “Using mental imagery seems to help us improve our affect, as well as regulate our nervous system.” The form of negative thoughts, be it verbal or visual, may not matter as much as the relentless focus on distressing matters.
The potency of mental imagery is still not entirely understood. It may be the case that imagery demands more effort and is more immersive. Therefore, it elicits stronger emotional responses, thus serving as a better distraction.
There’s also evidence suggesting that visualizing mental images activates the same brain regions as witnessing those events firsthand.
The Evolution of Rumination
Lawrence has observed that while some adults stick to one form of rumination, most teenagers report employing both verbal thoughts and mental imagery. These patterns might solidify over time, becoming habitual and reinforcing the negative imagery or messages.
Lawrence highlights the crucial nature of her work with teenagers, expressing her hope that early interventions can help these youngsters navigate to adulthood without being tethered to detrimental thought patterns.