Bothered by negative thoughts? Throw them away

The idea of writing down your negative thoughts and physically throwing them away has been used by therapists for some time now, and according to some new research this method can actually work to rid you of those negative thoughts.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, was studying the effect of treating our thoughts as physical objects and it found that whether we save those written thoughts or throw them away has a definite effect on whether or not those thoughts continue to influence us.

"At some level, it can sound silly," said Richard Petty, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, according to a Psychological Science press release. "But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts."

The researchers split their study up into multiple experiments, which were conducted using high school students from Madrid, Spain as participants.

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One of the experiments asked 83 students to take three minutes to write down their thoughts — negative and positive — about their own body. Some were told to tear up what they wrote and throw it in the trash, while others were asked to check what they wrote for spelling and grammar errors. All of the students were then questioned a few minutes later and asked to rate their bodies, from 1 through 9, on three scales — bad to good, unattractive to attractive, and dislike to like.

The results of the experiment showed that students who were asked to proof read their thoughts were more likely to be influenced by those thoughts than those that threw the thoughts away. The control group (which kept their paper) showed much higher positive body image scores for those who had originally written positive thoughts, and slightly lower negative body image scores for those who had originally written negative thoughts, while the group that threw their paper away showed much more average scores.

According to Petty: "When they threw their thoughts away, they didn't consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative."

"Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone — you can regenerate them. But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them."

So, can throwing away your negative thoughts really help you to be rid of them?

According to blogger The Neurocritic, there are other ways to interpret what the researchers found. As shown in the graph posted there, the students were certainly separated into positive thought and negative thought groups. However, exactly what is being compared? Do the average values shown from the group that threw out their thoughts show a true cross-section of how the group of participants felt, thus showing that keeping the paper you wrote your thoughts on truly reinforced those thoughts? I have to wonder if the number of participants in the study was large enough to get good statistical information.

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The goal of the research is certainly laudable, though. Dispelling negative thoughts, especially recurring ones, would go a long way towards helping people suffering from depression and anxiety, or getting their lives back to normal after suffering through some trauma.

"It is often difficult to get rid of these thoughts. We want to find out if there is a way to keep those thoughts from coming back, at least for longer periods of time." Petty said.