Category: Treatment - Mindfulness
Background: Recent research has identified a relationship between poor distress tolerance and the tendency to engage in cognitive or behavioral strategies to neutralize or cancel out the effects of distressing intrusive thoughts. Such neutralization behavior, while often helpful in the short-term, can reinforce the idea that distressing thoughts are dangerous and need to be avoided. Accordingly, neutralization behavior on laboratory tasks has been found to be associated with greater symptoms of anxiety disorders. The present study sought to test whether a brief mindfulness training is an effective tool for minimizing neutralization urges and subjective levels of distress that arise in response to distressing thoughts.
Methods: Ninety-eight undergraduates were randomly assigned to receive a brief mindfulness training (n=50) or to listen to relaxing music (n=48) prior to completing a neutralization task. The stress task required participants to write a sentence describing that someone they are close to will be in a car accident, and then ruminate on the sentence for a brief period. Participants then reported distress levels and the strength of urges to cancel out the effects of writing the sentence immediately afterwards and again after a one-minute waiting period. Neutralization behaviors (e.g. crossing out the sentence) were also recorded.
Results: Regression analyses showed that the mindfulness training was associated with weaker urges to neutralize the effects of writing the sentence after the one-minute delay, though no effect on subjective levels of distress or neutralization behaviors was found. The effects of the mindfulness training on neutralization urges was fully mediated by self-reported use of mindfulness skills, specifically the use of observing, acting with awareness, and non-judgment aspects of mindfulness.
Conclusion: These findings suggest that a brief mindfulness training can be an effective tool for reducing urges to neutralize distressing thoughts after ruminating on an imagined negative event. In addition, specific mindfulness skills (observing, acting with awareness and non-judgment) may be particularly relevant for combatting neutralization urges. Future research should test the utility of such mindfulness skills for tolerating distressing thoughts in clinical populations.
Clinical Research Coordinator
Massachusetts General Hospital