Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

If you can dream it, you can become it.

Don’t worry, be happy.

We’ve all heard these inspirational sayings meant to spur us on to bigger and better things or help us hold on when we feel like we’re at the end of rope. They may work for some, but for others – especially those who are hurting or already feel isolated and alone – they can seem trite and unhelpful. Still, before you make fun of your coworker’s “Successories” posters and crank up your moody Morrissey playlist, you should know that there is something to this whole idea of positive thinking.

A recent article in Scientific American reported that not only does the way we think affect our lives, but what we believe about the way we think also shapes our everyday – in ways both big and small.

If you are inclined to protest that you don’t give much thought to your thoughts, then you might want to think again. We all have beliefs about how we think. Often, they’re in the form of value judgments, as in when we become critical of how we regularly respond to something. If you mentally chastise yourself for overanalyzing or being too critical, that could be called metacognition. (1)

Metacognition is the scientific term for thinking about our thinking, and its powerful stuff. It can negatively impact our lives, but it can also be used positively in a variety of applications to help those suffering from mood and anxiety disorders and even psychosis.

“Research has shown that these metacognitive beliefs can play an important role in obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and generalized anxiety disorder, among others,” Scientific American reported.

A study published last fall in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that among 83 children, those with anxiety disorders held both more negative beliefs and positive beliefs about worry than the non-anxious children. Those beliefs, no matter how casual, are thought to play a role anxiety disorders.

Fortunately, metacognitive therapy has been found to successfully treat mood and anxiety disorders, according to a growing body of research. The method is relatively new, though, developed in 2008 by Adrian Wells, a clinical psychologist at the UK’s University of Manchester. It works by teaching patients to recognize and reframe metacognitive thoughts that reinforce unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as “my fretting is uncontrollable,” much in the same way cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) targets maladaptive beliefs along the lines of “the world is unsafe.”

Ruminating continuously can be particularly harmful already dealing with anxiety issues. One recent study examined whether metacognitive therapy could reduce depressive rumination by disproving positive beliefs about this style of thinking, such as “rumination increases insight into situations.” (1) Twelve undergraduate students with high rumination scores were randomly assigned to an intervention group for two weeks, and 11 others were assigned to a no-treatment control group. The technique reduced the students’ tendency to dwell on their negative thoughts. The findings were published in the Japanese Journal of Personality.

Metacognitive therapy has also been proven to reduce symptoms of psychosis in at least one study, reported in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. The study first looked at the effectiveness of CBT in treating psychotic disorders, and found it had mixed results. Researchers then gave 10 patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders up to 12 sessions of metacognitive therapy over a nine-month period. At the end of treatment, five of the participants had at least a 25 percent decrease in symptoms. Four of the five maintained this improvement at follow-up three months later.

positive thinking

Metacognition In Therapy

Despite the promising results, the use of metacognition in therapy is still somewhat limited. Broader and more extensive studies are needed, but many clinicians and researchers are already beginning to believe treatment should go beyond addressing a patient’s specific thoughts to illuminate the underlying beliefs that might be reinforcing them. If the research continues to deliver positive results, metacognitive therapy will likely become much more widespread in the coming years.


1) “Rethink Your Thoughts about Thinking: Targeting metacognition—our beliefs about thoughts—might alleviate mood disorders and even schizophrenia,” Scientific American, Tori Rodriguez, accessed June 12, 2014
2) “Meta-worry, Worry and Anxiety in Children and Adolescents,” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, University of Copenhagen, accessed June 18, 2014

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