Can We “Ban” Ourselves From Worrying About the Future?

What do we worry about when we worry? More often than not, the future. Ruminating about what tomorrow holds is a familiar activity for people with anxiety.

A logical question, then, is whether teaching people techniques for taking a step back from worries about the future can help with anxiety disorders. And that’s exactly the question a pair of psychologists from University of Sydney explored in a recent study.

In that study, they recruited 52 people with social anxiety disorder. Then they informed each of those people that they’d be expected to give a speech in four days. So, yes, in a sense they intentionally gathered a group of people and then subjected them to their worst fear, for the sake of science.

In reality, the researchers weren’t very interested in the speeches. They cared more about people’s experiences in the days leading up to the speeches, and specifically these people’s experiences ruminating about the anxiety-inducing event that loomed before them.

Half of the people in the group were trained in a technique that’s helpful in detaching from certain types of thoughts. This technique is called detached mindfulness and has shown some promise in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Using the technique of detached mindfulness, these people were then told to “ban” all thoughts about their upcoming speeches.

Over the next few days, the researchers checked in with all participants. It turned out that the people who’d been instructed in how to “ban” rumination about their speeches did indeed spend less time thinking about the anxiety-inducing task in front of them. And when they did think about it, they felt more in control and less distressed.

That said, detached mindfulness wasn’t a cure-all. People who used this technique still saw the speech as a threatening event, and they still felt just as anxious about it. But “banning” thoughts about the speech was helpful in reducing rumination, which is one unpleasant symptom associated with anxiety.

Techniques like detached mindfulness may not be an instant solution to social anxiety and related anxiety disorders, but they do appear have the potential to improve some aspects of the lives of people with these conditions. A well-designed ban on worry isn’t a ban that works perfectly, but it might be better than nothing.

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