Should you try to get rid of your thoughts? This is a question I get asked alot when I’m teaching retreats and courses, so I’m going to talk you through the clear, evidence-based answer to that question and give you the lowdown about the research on thought suppression.
In this episode of Mentally Stronger, I explain what the research says about thought suppression and explore some strategies to help you gain more control over your thoughts and become more resilient. Keep reading to learn more or press play on the podcast below.
What is thought suppression?
What do you do when you have negative thoughts? Do you try to get rid of them? Do you try to push them out of your mind and put on a happy face? This is a really common method people use to handle unwanted thoughts and memories.
We all try to regulate our thoughts and emotions in some way. But a word of caution: not all ways of regulating thoughts are equal. In fact, some are actually more harmful than helpful.
Thought suppression fits into that harmful category. That’s why I want to take you through the research on this and why this strategy is not only ineffective, but also really bad for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
So, what exactly is thought suppression? It is the attempt to push away, ignore, and get rid of unwanted thoughts.
The white bear effect
In 1863, Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote an essay that would fuel the research on thought suppression many years later. In his essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, he challenged the reader:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Over a century later, social psychologist Daniel Wegner read Dostoevsky’s essay and was intrigued by this challenge. It rang true in his own experience, so he decided to research thought suppression to see if the research would prove it right.
Would people be successful in keeping thoughts of a white bear at bay when they tried to do so?
Wegner and his team asked a group of students to do exactly what Dostoyevsky had challenged the readers of his essay to do – try hard not to think of a white bear. For five minutes, the students reported all of their thoughts verbally while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, they had to ring a bell.
Then, they were instructed to think of a white bear as much as they wanted for another five minutes and to keep ringing the bell whenever they did.
What happened next has since become one of the most widely replicated occurrences in the field of psychology. The students who had been trying to avoid all thoughts of a white bear couldn’t do it. On average, they either said the words or reported thinking about the bear more than once per minute.
Later, when they were told to think of the bear, they experienced a significant rebound effect, mentioning it much more often than any other control group.
Why getting rid of thoughts doesn’t work
Through this series of experiments and many more to follow, Wegner identified a phenomenon he called ‘ironic error’. This meant that the more forcefully you try to push thoughts away, the louder they become and the longer they stay around and repeat themselves.
In other words, when you try to suppress your thoughts, you actually get more of them than if you didn’t try to suppress them in the first place.
The ironic error is also one of the reasons that smokers who are trying to quit and try desperately not to think about smoking will constantly be tortured by images of lighting up. It’s why people on a diet who try not to think of food will get an influx of mental images of chips and doughnuts.
The phenomenon is probably not that big a surprise to many people. We’ve probably all experienced this rebound effect of thought suppression first-hand.
Have you ever tried not to think of that ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, but then you can’t get them out of your mind? Or have you tried to push away a big issue you don’t want to deal with that’s bothering you, and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself having an angry outburst over it?
Why do we have this ironic error?
Suppressing a thought is hard work for your mind. One part of the brain tries to suppress the thought, but another part of your brain has to constantly monitor your mental activity for those ‘forbidden thoughts’. It’s constantly checking – is there a white bear anywhere around here? And in the process of doing that, it brings it all up.
Not only that, but this process is incredibly fatiguing for the brain. So when you’re doing it over and over again, it can become quite a downward spiral. In fact, studies have shown that suppressing thoughts and emotions endangers your wellbeing, both physically and psychologically.
The harm of ongoing thought suppression
Thought suppression is also found to be a key contributor to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and chronic stress.
If we try to manage our stressful thoughts by avoiding them or pushing them down, it will likely backfire, and instead of less stress, we get more stress. If we try to manage our depressive thoughts by getting rid of them, we will likely get more depression.
There’s a big body of evidence showing that clinical depression, anxiety, and stress are all really bad for your health, and thought suppression is the perfect road to take you there.
So, as it turned out, Dostoyevsky was right. If we try to avoid thinking about a white bear, the cursed thing will indeed pop into our minds more than ever.
More mentally strong strategies to regulate thoughts
So how can we learn to regulate thoughts in more skilful, empowering, and effective ways?
Learning to regulate thoughts can take a bit of care and practice. But it can be learned with research-backed strategies. Here are two things that you can do to regulate your negative or unwanted thoughts.
1. Allow and confront the thoughts
It may seem like a bit of a paradox, but one of the most effective things you can do when having unwanted thoughts is to acknowledge the thought, allow it, and confront it.
Mindfulness meditation is the best way to help you to develop the skills to do this ongoing, but one strategy you can start to use on-the-go in everyday life is to mentally note your thoughts.
So, if you have a repeating thought you know isn’t helpful, you can say to yourself, “ahhh it’s the you’re-not-good-enough story again.” Or it might sound something like, “here’s the your-partner’s-going-to-leave-you thought again” or “the-world-is-falling-apart one is here again.”
Try to do this with a sense of humour and playfulness.
After you name the story, simply bring your focus back to what you were doing in the present moment.
This may sound strange, but when you stop trying to suppress your thoughts and fully acknowledge them and allow and confront them, you create some mental distance from them. You unhook from the thought so to speak, and it’s like breaking a spell. You can suddenly notice that it’s simply a thought, not reality. It’s a mental event, a bit of language that’s moving through your awareness. Something that arises and passes away. This takes the charge out of the thought and it loses its power to drag you into emotional reactivity.
So instead of running from the bear in our mind and struggling with it, we are much more likely to realise that it is not as powerful or scary as we once thought.
2. Refocus your mind
The second thing that has been shown to work effectively is learning to refocus your mind on more helpful things. So, there are two ways you could do this.
Rather than trying to push away unwanted thoughts, you can actively start to think about something else that is more nourishing. The research does show that this is more effective than thought suppression. You could think about how grateful you are for certain aspects of life, actions you’d like to take to improve your situation, or even just another object of attention like a dolphin instead of a white bear.
Another way you can do this is to focus your attention on the present moment and what you’re sensing right now, like the feeling of your breath, the sound of the birds out the window, or the feeling of your body resting on a chair. This is a really calming and enjoyable practice.
Research shows these are more effective ways to regulate any unwanted, unpleasant, or distressing thoughts.
To recap, thought suppression doesn’t make the thoughts go away, it just makes them rebound and come back even stronger, causing more distress. So instead, try acknowledging the thoughts, name them, or refocus your mind on something more helpful and nourishing.
So as best you can, try to let go of thought suppression because it’s a habit that will sap your mental strength, and instead try these more helpful ways of dealing with difficult thoughts. See what effect it has on your body, mind, and in your life.
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