Troubled by negative, unwanted thoughts? A surprisingly simple strategy may help clear them from your mind, based on a new study in Psychological Science.
Getting rid of unwelcome thoughts is notoriously difficult. Researchers from Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain and Ohio State University wondered: Wouldn’t it be great if you could just throw away those nagging thoughts, the same way you do the trash?
Of course it would. So the researchers came up with a strategy designed to help people do precisely that: writing down their negative thoughts on a sheet of paper and then tossing it out. Although the strategy might sound simplistic, it seemed to work quite well.
In one experiment, high school students first spent a few minutes writing down either positive or negative thoughts about their own bodies. Then one group was told to throw their papers in the wastepaper basket, while another group was told to check their papers for grammar and spelling mistakes. Finally, all the students were asked to rate their bodies.
Students who kept their papers seemed to hold onto the thoughts scribbled there. Those who had written negative things about their bodies rated them lower than those who had written positive things. However, this association wasn’t found in students who had tossed their papers away. By pitching the papers, they seemed to have discarded the thoughts as well.
The power of this strategy lies in how much significance people attach to their thoughts. Labeling thoughts as trash seems to tell the brain to disregard them.
Incidentally, the opposite approach can work, too. In a second, similar experiment, the researchers asked students to throw away their papers, keep them on their desks, or fold them up and put them in a pocket, wallet, or purse. Those in the latter group, who tucked away their thoughts for safekeeping, were most heavily influenced by them.
Once again, it’s all about the symbolism. Protecting thoughts seems to tell the brain to pay more attention to them, because they must be important.
Want to try discarding some negative thoughts? Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
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