A 100-Year Old Word Repetition Technique is Effective in Reducing the Impact of (Negative) Words

words

Repeat the word milk for 45 seconds or more (remember to say it out loud), and you will find that the word begins to lose its meaning. It’s called the Milk Milk Milk exercise, and it is just one of many word repetition exercises. Try it yourself before you read any further… did the word milk lose its meaning?

Word repetition exercises were first used by British psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1916. If you are interested, you can read more about the technical principles behind the word repetition exercise in Titchener’s original book on p. 425.

The purpose of the exercise is to remove the emotional impact or discomfort and believability of specific words or thoughts, words or thoughts that may cause emotional discomfort.

We tend to believe and give personal meaning to our thoughts, and this exercise helps us detach ourselves from unhelpful thoughts or so-called “self-relevant negative thoughts”. This process is sometimes called cognitive defusion. So, this word repetition technique is one of many cognitive defusion techniques.

How does the word repetition exercise work? When we repeat a word for 45 seconds or more (again, remember to say it out loud), the word eventually becomes a series of meaningless sounds and letters. In this way, the word begins to lose its associations, its emotional impact, and eventually its believability.

We want to decrease the believability of strong negative self-referential words (e.g., stupid, ugly, inadequate etc.) as these words have a negative impact on our quality of life and mental health.

But why is a 100-year old exercise relevant? Well, research supports its effectiveness. Here is a brief summary of the evidence. Masuda, Hayes, Sackett et al. (2004) found that:

“The cognitive defusion technique reduced both discomfort and believability more so than the comparison approaches.”

Masuda, Hayes and Lillis et al. (2009) extended this finding to:

“… emotional discomfort and believability may be distinctive functional aspects of cognitive events.”

More specifically, the authors found that the emotional impact of words was reduced after 3 to 10 seconds of word repetition, while the effects on believability did so after 20 to 30 seconds of repetition. So, the authors suggest that words or thoughts have two aspects, namely an emotional aspect and a believability aspect.

Masuda, Twohig and Stormo et al. (2010) compared the effects of the word repetition technique with thought distraction techniques on negative self-referential thoughts in a non-clinical population. The results were in favor of the word repetition technique.

So, we may say that this simple exercise is worthwhile. It is easy and it works for most people. How about that? Other psychological techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, may also help reduce the believability of thoughts via cognitive defusion.

Taken together, cognitive defusion techniques may help us reduce the negative effects of some thoughts. Exercise is all it takes.

Thank you for reading.

Photo: Pierre Metivier
  • I love that you’re giving people a variety of simple techniques for use on their own. These studies so very relevant to the technique I coach with, Emotional Freedom Techniques. The first thing we do for emotional issues is to use tapping on acupoints along with stating our negative feelings and beliefs, continuing until the person feels more relaxed. Sometimes people say, why am I saying the negative? Shouldn’t I be saying the positive? I tell people the more energy they spend trying to hold the negative at bay by trying to ignore it, the less they have for their health and happiness. This gives additional credence to that concept.

    • Hi Ange,

      Thanks for showing your interest in my article and blog. You are very right that many people spend much time and energy trying to hold the negative thoughts at bay or trying to ignore them. This avoidance strategy is sometimes succesful in the short run, but sooner or later the negative thoughts will come back as they are a very part of human nature. Joy and sadness go hand in hand.
      A strategy that is different from avoidance, and often more effective, is acceptance. Acceptance is the building blocks of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and mindfulness meditation. More specifically, can we allow our thoughts and emotions to just be there because we don’t have to act on our thoughts, and we don’t have to get rid of our thoughts (either by supressing or changing them). If we try to get rid of particular thoughts, we often find that this effort, in fact, strengthens the particular thoughts. So, we just allow the thoughts to be there, and then we pay our attention to meaningful activities in our lives. In this way, negative thoughts become less dominant in our lives, and they take less energy from us. This energy is now released and can be used for meaningful activities: activities that make life worth living.
      In regard to your thoughts on why we need to say negative thoughts. We need to say negative thoughts aloud in order to be able to accept them. Saying negative things is a premise for accepting them. In other words, it’s quite simple: we cannot accept, what we don’t allow to be said. Once we accept our thoughts, we become less affected by them and “habituation” takes place, meaning that we get used to our thoughts, and as a consequence, they cannot have the same impact on our lives. If you are interested in this theoretical framework (ACT), I warmly recommend this article, accesible for free at: http://www.ijpsy.com/volumen10/num1/256/a-review-of-acceptance-and-commitment-therapy-EN.pdf

      Best regards,
      Simon

  • This is a very interesting post! I tried the ‘milk’ bit, and I’m going to try using the technique when I find myself ruminating; I think it could be very useful to quickly disarm ruminating thoughts. I’ve posted a link to this on my own blog so that more people can learn about this. Thank you for sharing this information!

    • Hi Michelle,
      I’m glad you found the post useful, and thanks for sharing it. I like your expression “to disarm ruminating thoughts”. I appreciate your response, and I will definitely write more about similar topics in the future.
      Best regards,
      S.