Experiences with Intrusive Thoughts in Younger and Older Adults

Magee, Joshua Christopher, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Teachman, Bethany, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Intrusive thoughts are common obstacles to well-being in younger adults, but they are not well understood in older adults. Leading theories of intrusive thoughts suggest that the meaning one assigns to an intrusive thought will play a large role in determining one's emotional response to that thought. The two current studies incorporated a lifespan perspective into theories of intrusive thoughts to examine agerelated differences in the initial experience and recurrence of intrusive thoughts, the distress following these recurrences, and the meanings assigned to these recurrences. In study one, younger (N = 51) and older (N = 49) adults were randomly assigned to suppress (i.e., keep out of mind) or monitor an intrusive thought. In study two, we extended younger (N = 35) and older (N = 36) adults' time engaging with intrusive thoughts by asking participants to suppress and then monitor a series of three intrusive thoughts. We also attempted to manipulate the meanings assigned to the thoughts' return in line with concerns expected to be threatening to older and younger adults, respectively. Across studies, the age groups did not differ in their actual difficulties with the recurrence of intrusive thoughts, but older adults tended to perceive greater difficulty keeping those same thoughts out of mind. With regard to distress, in both studies older adults experienced steadier levels of positive affect than younger adults when engaging with intrusive thoughts. However, older adults also appeared to experience slower decline of negative affect than younger adults. In terms of the meanings assigned to recurrences of intrusive thoughts, older adults were prone to interpreting the recurrence of intrusive thoughts as a sign of cognitive decline across studies. Finally, the substantial effort older adults put into keeping intrusive thoughts out of mind appeared to be an important age-related risk factor for negative emotional consequences after intrusive thoughts. Intrusive Thoughts in Younger and Older Adults III Together, these studies highlight potential risk and protective factors in older adults for experiencing emotion dysregulation after intrusive thoughts. The evidence from the two studies demonstrates that an individual's reactions to intrusive thoughts must be considered within an 'age context' that takes into account age-relevant concerns.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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