Teens have repetitive thoughts; actually, we all do. Those thoughts can become ruminations when teens (or adults) start to think obsessively about them. Ruminating on negative thoughts will increase a person’s level of stress and discomfort. It can also lead to anxiety and depression. It hinders and even prevents us from experiencing a happier, more satisfying life. But can we change those ruminating thoughts? If so, how can we teach our teens to stop ruminating on negative thoughts? The answer to the first question is “Yes, we can change those ruminating thoughts and even learn to ruminate less.” A study involving 145 teens helps us answer the second question by exploring how to teach teens to stop their ruminating thoughts.
To begin the experiment, researchers induced a negative mood in the teens who had volunteered for the study. They did this by creating a feeling of exclusion for each teen. Then they split the teens into four groups: two “rumination groups” and two “distraction groups.” The “rumination groups” were prompted to ruminate using verbal thoughts in one group and mental imagery (mental pictures) in the other group. Likewise, the “distraction group” was prompted to distract themselves using verbal thoughts in one group or mental imagery in the other group. While each of the four groups followed their prompts, the researchers monitored the activity of their heart and skin conductance (measures of stress). In addition, the teens rated their “current emotional state” at four different points during the study. What did the researchers discover?
Teens ruminate using both verbal thoughts and mental imagery. This study showed that both verbal rumination and rumination using mental imagery had an equally negative impact on the teen’s mood.
On the other hand, mental imagery proved more effective and powerful than verbal thoughts in distracting the teens from ruminating. Mental imagery, in other words, was more effective at stopping ruminating thoughts. Why? Because focusing on a mental image, a mental picture, required more effort and consumed more mental space. So, what does this mean for you and your teen?
You can use this finding to help your teen manage their emotions, to help them learn how to not be overwhelmed with worry and anxiety. In other words, you can use this information to help our teens stop ruminating. First, begin by practicing the use of mental imagery yourself. Our teens learn best from our example. When worried thoughts begin to pile up in your mind, invest your energy in creating a mental image unrelated to the worry. For instance, you might focus on your favorite vacation spot. In the study described above, the mental image was simply “a lemon in various conditions.” I like to suggest people use a silly image at times—like a sky-blue Volkswagen being driven by a giraffe whose neck and head stick out the sky light while a pink elephant sits crammed into the passenger seat. Pick your image. Let it be one that brings a chuckle or a sense of peace. Focus on the sensations inherent in the image—the colors, smells, physical sensations, sounds, etc. Let the image fill your mind.
Second, teach your children and teens how to use this skill. Teach them to pick a mental image that will utilize the mental energy currently deployed in the service of ruminating and fill them with a sense of peace or give them a chuckle instead.
Of course, you still want to do whatever you can to respond to any reasonable concern (worry). For instance, picturing yourself on a beach can reduce excessive and unnecessary worry about an upcoming test, but it won’t help you pass the test. Only studying will do that. And studying will also reduce your worry about passing the test. Which gives rise to the third point. Do the work necessary to address the concern. Sometimes the best way to beat the worry and anxiety of rumination is to actually get to work and address the concern.
Don’t let rumination interfere with your teen’s contentment and joy in life. Teach them, by example and instruction, to do the work necessary to address any legitimate concern. If ruminating thoughts persist, teach them to utilize mental imagery to stop the rumination.