Distress and Recurrence of Intrusive Thoughts in Younger and Older Adults

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Abstract

The current study incorporated a life span perspective into existing theories of intrusive thoughts to examine age-related differences in the difficulty controlling intrusive thoughts, the distress following intrusive thought recurrences, and the meanings assigned to these recurrences. Younger (N = 51) and older (N = 49) community adults were randomly assigned to suppress (i.e., keep out of mind) or monitor an intrusive thought. Participants rated their positive and negative affect throughout engagement with the intrusive thought, and they also rated the meanings they gave to recurrences of their everyday intrusive thoughts. The results demonstrated that older adults tended to perceive greater difficulty with controlling the intrusive thought than younger adults despite the fact that they did not differ in the actual recurrence of the intrusive thought. With regard to distress, older adults experienced steadier levels of positive affect than younger adults throughout engagement with the intrusive thought. However, older adults also reported greater residual negative affect after engaging with the intrusive thought than younger adults. Finally, older and younger adults appeared to assign meanings to recurrences of intrusive thoughts in line with age-relevant concerns. Specifically, older adults were prone to interpret the recurrence of intrusive thoughts as a sign of cognitive decline, but they were less likely than younger adults to see intrusive thoughts as a sign of moral failure. Together, these results highlight a range of potential risk and protective factors in older adults for experiencing emotion dysregulation after intrusive thoughts.

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