It is difficult to concentrate when there are distracting, persistent negative thoughts floating through the mind. Worried thoughts can make it challenging to pay attention and relax.

A new study suggests that specific forms of mindfulness techniques can be particularly useful for reducing repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts that frequently occur in depression or anxiety.

The randomized study of 77 participants examined the impact of three types of mindfulness techniques on the frequency of intrusive negative thoughts and measured subjective anxiety levels.

The most effective technique for reducing the frequency of negative thoughts was a guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation. The general principle behind acceptance-based meditations is that you allow thoughts to come into your mind, observe, acknowledge, and make room for them rather than attempt to struggle with them. The following script was used for the acceptance-based guided meditation in the study:

Direct your attention inwardly…notice thoughts, emotions, physical sensations…any other kinds of experiences as they show up in the field of your awareness…sitting and noticing what's here, right now, for you…Each time you become aware of a private experience, such as a thought, or a feeling…turning your attention towards it, acknowledging it, maybe labelling it…and as best you can, letting things be as they are…making space for your experiences.

This principle of acceptance has been formalized into a type of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. You can practice acceptance techniques at home on your own through guided meditations that encourage acceptance (see resources and links below).

The second mindfulness technique studied was an attention-based breath meditation which focuses attention on the breath. Breath awareness was slightly less effective in reducing negative thoughts but still helpful. Here is a sample of the script used in the study:

Become aware of the sensation of breathing…noticing where in the body the physical sensations of breathing are vivid for you, right now…choosing one place to follow the breath…making a decision to stay with this place…bringing your attention and your curiosity to each breath…Feeling the moment-by-moment physical sensations as you breathe in and breathe out. And each time you notice your attention has wandered, gently bringing your attention back to the breath and the sensations in your body.

Finally, the third mindfulness technique, which was the least effective in reducing the frequency of negative thoughts, was progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Progressive muscle relaxation directs you to focus your attention on different muscles in the body and guides you to tense and then relax these muscles. PMR has, however, been shown to be effective for reducing depression, anxiety, and even test-taking anxiety in other randomized trials.

Researchers found that one-time 10-minute exercises did not reduce how anxious people felt subjectively, despite lowering the frequency of their negative thoughts. This finding is helpful to remember for two reasons.

One, you might not feel better or less anxious after doing mindfulness exercises, but it could actually be helping you worry less.

Second, sticking to regular practice is important. Based on other meditation studies, including brain imaging studies, regular practice is important for lasting changes both biologically and psychologically and has helped lower anxiety. More experienced meditators have been found to have different levels of brain activity and cortical thickness compared to meditation beginners in areas of the brain related to emotional regulation and self-awareness. Most meditation studies are notably at least 8 to 12 weeks long, which suggests that the more consistently and regularly you practice over time, the more mindfulness meditation can help.

You may also find that doing acceptance-based meditation first could ease you into other forms of meditation later. If you are interested in trying guided meditations similar to those examined in this study, try these guided meditations:

Acceptance-based meditation

Tara Brach Self-Compassion

Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings Meditation

Attention-based meditation

Breath Awareness UCLA Mindful Research Awareness Center

10 Minute breathing meditation

Tara Brach Cultivating Relaxed Attention Meditation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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Copyright © 2017 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC

References

Ainsworth B, Bolderston H,  & Garner M. Testing the differential effects of acceptance and attention-based psychological interventions on intrusive thoughts and worry. Behav Res Ther. 2017 Jan 24;91:72-77. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.012. 

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