Adopting a positive perspective — rather than assuming the negative — during unclear social situations may be of especially good benefit to teens with anxiety. It may also pave the way to a more peaceful adult life, according to new research from Oxford University.
“It’s thought that some people may tend to draw negative interpretations of ambiguous situations,” said Jennifer Lau, Ph.D., who led the work at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University.
“For example, I might wave at someone I recently met on the other side of the street. If they don’t wave back, I might think they didn’t remember me — or alternatively, I might think they’re snubbing me.”
“People with anxiety are more likely to assume the latter interpretation. These negative thoughts are believed to drive and maintain their feelings of low mood and anxiety. If you can change that negative style of thinking, perhaps you can change mood in anxious teenagers.”
Researchers found that tests developed to prompt either positive or negative reactions in ambiguous social events can swing how healthy teenagers interpret them. The approach is called “cognitive bias modification of interpretations” or CBM-I.
After study results revealed that positive or negative thinking can be triggered in adolescents with no anxiety problems, the team now wants to see if it is possible to reverse the negative thoughts that can deepen problems in high-anxiety teens.
“Of course it’s normal for teenagers to be worried about exams, friends, social acceptance, and about the future generally,” said Lau.
“But anxiety can become a problem when it becomes persistent or is out of proportion to the situation. For example when someone is doing well at school but still worries all the time and can’t control the worry. In some extreme cases, kids avoid going to school because they are anxious. This is not being just a little bit worried.”
For the study, researchers set out to see whether simple training tasks could prompt a teenager to take either more positive interpretations of unclear social situations or more negative.
Thirty-six healthy teenagers participated in the study, and were randomly grouped to receive training designed to manipulate positive readings of scenarios or negative readings.
The training involved working through short familiar scenarios involving social situations — such as reading a comment about your photo on Facebook — but unclear in how one might respond emotionally in each case.
The volunteers worked through ambiguous scenarios and were prompted to give answers which would resolve the situation in either a positive way or a negative way – depending on the type of training they were previously given.
The researchers discovered that the training task was able to persuade interpretation outcomes in the adolescents. Those who were given positive training were more likely to assume positive motives in the ambiguous scenarios, while those who received the negative training were more likely to view the scenarios more negatively.
The results suggest that the approach is able to shift a teen’s emotional interpretation, at least in the laboratory setting.
“Although these results are early, and among a limited number of healthy teenagers, we hope this approach to encourage positive interpretations of events will prove to be a powerful tool. If we are able to intervene early and effectively in teenagers with anxiety, we may be able to prevent later adult problems,” said Lau.
“The next steps are to give people with high levels of anxiety these training tasks to see if it helps change their mood over significant periods of time.”
The study is published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.
Source: University of Oxford