Conventional psychotherapies often advise people with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression to avoid controlling their thoughts. In a recent article published in Advances in ScienceResearchers have described the effects of cognitive control on mnemonic, affective, positive, or negative indices of mental health.
The study protocol combined active forgetting with stressful imagery in the controlled recruitment of extinction circuitry considered critical to the adjustment of emotional responses to threat. In other words, the researchers allowed people to face reminders that reactivated their fearful thoughts and inhibited awareness of the associated memory.
The researchers recruited participants from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit of the United Kingdom Medical Research Council (MRC), as well as through online websites such as Twitter and word of mouth from other participants.
A total of 120 participants, 93 of which were women, were recruited to participate in a three-day online thought control training, which helped them suppress fearful or neutral thoughts. Three months later, follow-up sessions were held during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Study participants were randomly assigned to conditions that differed in the valence of the events. The primary analysis involved a comparison between the primary intervention ‘Restraint-Negative‘ and ‘Suppressor-Neutral’ control groups, consisting of 61 and 59 people, respectively.
Each participant generated 76 future events, in which they discussed 20, 20, and 36 negative (fear and anxiety), positive (hopes and dreams), and neutral (own situations) events, respectively. each one.
Each event was created with four conditions, which included a short tagline of eight words or less, a cue word that evoked the event during training, an important detail describing the event, and a brief but more detailed description of the event to help. the experiment confirms the phenomenon’s compliance with the rules. Eight events were allocated to each condition and described as Imagine, Baseline Imagine, Baseline No-Imagine, and No-Imagine.
Researchers rated the event’s characteristics of clarity, probability of occurrence, distance to the future, frequency of thought, degree of current anxiety, and mood to assess mental health. A three-day retrieval suppression practice followed, in which each session consisted of 12 No-Imagine and Imagine repetitions in response to No-Imagine and Imagine cues, respectively. These assessments are repeated after three months.
Analyzes of event and mental health measures focused on changes in memory and the effect of each event after pretraining, post-training, and follow-up.
Mental health questions were administered using an online survey tool called ‘Qualtrics.’ These scores were converted into percentage of maximum possible score (POMP) scores calculated as POMP = 100 ∗ (raw−min)/(max-min).
Training people to suppress distressing thoughts did not increase rebound risk on all assessed mnemonic, affective, or mental health indices. The risk did not increase, regardless of the affective intensity of the feared events, delays, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress at the beginning of the training. However, suppression of acquisition interferes with the progression from cues to unwanted thoughts and better acquired cognitive control as it occurs naturally.
The molecular mechanisms underlying the current benefits of cognitive control training remain unclear. However, this experiment provides an alternative view of the origins of disturbed thinking in these disorders.
The three-day training regimen improved all symptoms, thus implying that study participants had less structural or neurochemical deficits within prominent brain structures, such as the prefrontal cortex. Training likely increases participants’ awareness of cognitive control and, as a result, is essential for regulating depressive fears.
Researchers speculate that this training method eliminates a metacognitive gap or changes false beliefs about the dangers of cognitive control that prevent its use.
The study’s findings challenge the century-old notion that thought suppression is maladaptive and a key mediator in the pathogenesis of mental health disorders. Instead, suppression training reduces the memory for suppressed fears and reduces their salience and anxiety-provoking potential.
These findings indicate that this training improves mental health for those suffering from symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Importantly, these post-training benefits continued after three months.