Reigning in random thoughts during idle time can help to improve overall mental health.
In this study focused on what wandering thoughts can teach us about mental health, ruminative individuals had negative thoughts that lasted longer than positive thoughts, and those negative thoughts became progressively narrower in topic over time.
About 80 participants were trained to voice their thoughts aloud for 10 minutes while sitting alone in a room without access to electronic devices for a new University of Arizona-led study. recorded those thoughts, then transcribed the recordings and analyzed them for content. In total, more than 2,000 participant’s thoughts were analyzed. The results may be useful in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues such as depression.
The researchers sought to measure patterns of thinking. They were especially interested in capturing ruminative thinking, continuously thinking about the same negative thoughts, which is a common symptom of depression.
The authors followed certain thoughts over time, measuring how long they lasted and how narrow or broad in focus they were. Ruminative individuals had negative thoughts that lasted longer than positive thoughts, and those negative thoughts became progressively narrower in topic over time.
“We were able to witness how some people became trapped in perseverative cycles of thinking,” researcher Andrews-Hanna said. “We recruited a random group of people without knowing if they were diagnosed with any clinical condition for this study, yet it’s striking that in just 10 minutes of down time, we can capture thought processes that speak to many different mental health conditions.”
Some people, on the other hand, found the 10 minutes to be productive and inspirational. “Some participants thought about positive topics or goals they wanted to reach,” Andrews-Hanna said. “Other people’s thoughts were quite creative. Many participants found that the exercise offered a refreshing break from the busy world around them.”
The study ended before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the results seem more relevant than ever as many people have experienced more solitary idle time over the last year and half than at any other point in their lives. The authors also conducted a version of this study during the grips of the pandemic and are now in the process of analyzing the results.
“Having to sit at home for such a long time affected people’s mental well-being dramatically,” Raffaelli said. “We saw this with the increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic and the surge in substance abuse.”
Researchers point out that taking mental breaks is increasingly undervalued in today’s busy and distracted society, keeping people always on the go, bringing work home or distracting people with email or social media. Although the study didn’t measure it, the authors speculate that training people as early as childhood to be comfortable during idle time may help maintain mental well-being.
“By taming our go-to reflex of taking out our phone whenever there’s a moment of silence, we can more fully realize the benefits of breaks on our mental health and creativity,” Raffaelli said.
Read this article on Science Daily: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211001100429.htm
Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD
Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Sonoma County California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.
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