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For some people at risk for depression, trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones may worsen their symptoms of depression. That’s what Gerald Haeffel, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, found when he studied how college students at risk for depression responded to self-help workbooks designed to prevent the mood disorder.
The students were randomly assigned one of three workbooks: a traditional cognitive therapy workbook (which included exercises directing the participants to identify and dispute negative thoughts; that is, positive thinking), a nontraditional workbook (which focused solely on adaptive thoughts) and a workbook teaching academic skills like time management and goal setting.
Students who repetitively focus on the consequences and causes of negative moods (known as ruminators) had dramatically worse symptoms of depression after completing the traditional workbook compared to similar students who received either of the other two assignments. That’s not surprising, since people who endlessly ruminate on their depression probably don’t need exercises that ask them to think about it more. Meanwhile, the nontraditional and academic skills workbooks were equally effective in preventing depressive symptoms in ruminators.
Not only did the study raise concerns about traditional cognitive therapy for ruminators, but it also sent up a red flag for Haeffel regarding the self-help book industry, which he said made $9 billion in 2004. Haeffel and his researchers note that self-help books often recommend techniques that are best done with the guidance of a cognitive behavior therapist. When done without that guidance, positive thinking may not work, and even worse, it could backfire.
Haeffel says his study revealed just how difficult it is to change the way you think. You need a lot of mental energy to make positive thinking override long-established negative associations and to form more adaptive associations, he says, adding that the very people who need positive thinking are also low on mental energy. “And as this research shows, when you run out of energy, your old way of thinking can come back in full force (sometimes worse).” Next: Needy and Depressed? Music Probably Won't Help