Sunday, October 05, 2008

Apocalypse Manana: Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts and Cognitive Interference

With headlines proclaiming the meltdown of civilization as we know it, and economic apocalypse around the corner, it's no wonder that e-learners may have difficulty with focus. Intrusive thoughts can cause cognitive interference, as can the emotional response that one naturally has to the idea that the world as we know it is coming to an end. Yet, when you wake up and find the world has not come to an end, how you deal with the consequences of the fact that you spent the last few days wondering how to squirrel away canned goods and grieving over the erosion of your life's savings, your 401-K? One quick approach is to postpone apocalypse -- let it occur manana -- and in the meantime, find ways to deal with intrusive thoughts and cognitive interference in order to get your life back on track. You can learn more about the effects of intrusive thoughts and cognitive interference on stress in the family environment and job performance with an online bachelors degree in social work. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts.

The first step is to recognize that you are having intrusive thoughts. Don't criticize yourself for it. It is natural. In fact, you may be dispositionally inclined to experience intrusive thoughts. According to research on intrusive thoughts and cognitive interference in students working in laboratory situations, researchers Sarason etal concluded that some individuals posssessed personality traits that predisposed them to have intrusive thoughts, which caused cognitive interference (Sarason, 1986).

Tending to have intrusive thoughts may be a part of one's disposition, and an aspect of one's personality which is not likely to change over time. However, having intrusive thoughts can be associated with depression or anxiety. The types of intrusive thoughts will vary. Researchers have found that if one is clinically depressed, the intrusive thoughts tend to be self-critical, and they tend to express the viewpoint that one is helpless and unable to influence one's situation (Sarason, 1986, p. 1017). For a depressed individual, apocalyptic and highly negative headlines will tend to trigger thoughts of helplessness, and lead to negative beliefs, leading to a tendency to withdraw and to stop working on projects.

In contrast, for individuals experiencing generalized anxiety, the intrusive thoughts may also be initially negative. However, the key difference is that with anxious individuals, the intrusive thoughts act as triggers, and they lead to a series of intrusive thoughts, which tend to go along established pathways of associations. The pathways and networks of associations are well-developed and well-traveled, which creates an almost predictable outcome.

Studies have shown that anxious individuals tend to have a bias toward threatening information (Sarason, 1986, p. 1017). In times of economic crisis and apocalyptic headlines, the anxious individual may find it almost impossible to block out or resist the attraction of the cues that trigger the thoughts.

While some intrusive thoughts are task-related, many will not be. Researchers have found that athletes as well as students have issues with cognitive interference. For example, in a study of golfers, researchers Thill and Curry (2000) found that certain self-regulation strategies worked quite well when golfers had intrusive thoughts such as worry about competition, other golfers, the environment, etc.

Social comparison intrusive thoughts were found to be more destructive than task-involvement, and learning and achievement thoughts (Thill & Curry, 2000, p. 104). Thus, the golfers were more successful when they were able to identify when intrusive thoughts were occurring and then to consciously turn the thoughts to those of task-accomplishment and process.

Task-accomplishment thoughts can be negative and destructive when they are associated with perfectionism (Flett & Madorsky, 2002). If the intrusive thoughts follow a pattern of making negative comparisons with others, or disparaging one's efforts because they do not achieve the highest ratings, there could be a problem of perfectionism. Flett and Madorsky found that perfectionistic thinkers who had intrusive thoughts tended to ruminate on the thoughts, repeating them to the point of being incapacitated. One strategy for stopping the rumination and going on to productive thoughts could involve setting easily achieved goals, and then rewarding oneself for reaching them. Have you logged into your course today? Pat yourself on the back. Did you interact on the discussion board? Another reward. Avoid creating a reward system that depends on the evaluations of others (grades from instructors, positive feedback from students, etc.). Keep the locus of control on yourself.

It is possible that intrusive thoughts are associated with other behaviors, such as rituals, magical thinking, hoarding, excessive ordering and arranging. While one should not jump to pathologize natural responses to difficult times, it is also important to recognize that there could be an underlying issue, such as obessive-compulsive disorder. Psychiatrists Merlo and Storch (2006) have discussed the connection between intrusive thoughts, cognitive interference, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The key is to be open-minded rather than self-condemning if you recognize behavior patterns that correspond with obsessive-compulsive disorder. There is nothing wrong with seeking support.

Strategies for Controlling Intrusive Thoughts and Minimizing Cognitive Interference

1. Listen to your thoughts. Find out when and how you respond to external news or triggers. If your thoughts tend to be about people, places, social comparisons, recognize that. Try to replace the thoughts with those that relate to your task: process, procedures, short-term goals.

2. If you find yourself feeling helpless and telling yourself that you are not able to do anything to protect yourself against change, reassure yourself that your feelings and thoughts are normal. However, there are ways to protect yourself. One is to study, and keep steady with your plans to improve your life and your future. Remind yourself that statistically speaking, education is the best approach.

3. If you find your thoughts and feelings racing ahead, and you find yourself predicting negative outcomes and doomsday scenarios, recognize that you may be feeling anxious. Racing thoughts and random, negative associations that respond to feelings of being threatened are very understandable given the situation. Reassure yourself that the racing thoughts are simply racing thoughts. You do not have to act or react to them.

4. Recognize that cognitive interference tends to occur in one or more spheres of cognition. There may be a visual trigger, which will trigger thoughts and emotions. One way to respond to the visual triggers switch learning strategies and move more toward alternative modes. For example, you may focus on audio and kinaesthetic, which can help you keep track. Write notes. Listen to lectures. Watch videos.

5. Do what you can to place yourself in a situation that minimizes interference. When the cognitive interference occurs, sort out the task-related thoughts and the non-task related thoughts. Set aside the non-task-related thoughts, and tell yourself you do not have to react to them.

6. Realize that some decisions are fear-based and some are not. Evaluate your actions or the thoughts about the actions you're thinking about taking. Are your thoughts racing? Are you telling yourself you need to change your major? Make a list of pro's and con's. Sleep on the decision.

7. Recognize when decisions need to be made quickly, and when they can be postponed. If you are studying for a test, you need to continue to study, even if your emotions are surging and you're feeling a fight-flight response. Channel the fight-flight into the fight at hand: the test. Use adrenaline to sharpen your focus on the task at hand rather than to let it distract you.

8. If your intrusive thoughts share characteristics of perfectionism, make sure that you recognize this, and the destructive nature of perfectionism. Develop a strategy for rewarding yourself for achieving small goals and milestones, and commend yourself for completing tasks, and avoid comparing your performance to others, or to a quality standard. Simply pat yourself on the back for showing up and doing it.

9. If you find you are engaging in behaviors that are ritualized and to the point of being incapacitating, it might be helpful to employ some of the strategies used by those with obsessive-compulsive disorder in order to liberate yourself from the tyranny of a compulsion, and to reintroduce choice into your life.

These are unsettling times. Yet, they do not have to be self-defeating times. You can use the challenges that you are feeling to gain self-awareness and to develop strategies that will help you be a more effective e-learner and a more self-confident global citizen, able to move forward with calm and compassion. Ultimately, the ability to develop self-regulation strategies and to weather storms of surging thoughts and feelings will make you a true leader.


Flett, Gordon L.; Madorsky, Dara; Hewitt, Paul L.; Heisel, Marnin J. (2002). Perfectionism Cognitions, Rumination, and Psychological Distress Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Spring 2002, Vol. 20 Issue: Number 1 p33-47.

Ladouceur, Robert; Freeston, Mark H.; Rhéaume, Josée; Dugas, Michel J.; Gagnon, Fabien; Thibodeau, Nicole; Fournier, Sarah (2000) Strategies used with intrusive thoughts: A comparison of OCD patients with anxious and community controls. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 109(2), May 2000. pp. 179-187.

Merlo, Lisa J.; Storch, Eric A. (2006) Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Tools for recognizing its many expressions. Journal of Family Practice, Mar2006, Vol. 55 Issue 3, p217-222.

Pierce, Gregory R.; Ptacek, J. T.; Taylor, Bruce; Yee, Penny L.; Henderson, Ciarda A.; Lauventi, Helene J.; Loffredo, Cynthia M. (1998) The role of dispositional and situational factors in cognitive interference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 75(4), Oct 1998. pp. 1016-1031.

Sarason, I. G., Sarason, B. R., Keefe, D. E., Hayes, B. E., & Shearin, E. N. (1986). Cognitive interference: Situational determinants and traitlike characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 215-226.

Thill, Edgar E.; Cury, François. (2000). Learning to play golf under different goal conditions: their effects on irrelevant thoughts and on subsequent control strategies. European Journal of Social Psychology, Jan2000, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p101-122

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