Parents are probably familiar with the phrase “Just don’t think about it” and may have used it with their children on occasion.
From a very early age, we teach children to suppress unwanted thoughts, especially those that upset them.
“That is very unfair, but don’t think about it. Think about something else.”
Did you know that this common form of mental control might set our kids up for mental health issues later in life?
What is thought suppression
Suppression is the intentional inhibition of a thought that a person does not want to think about. Individuals who suppress are aware that they are making such a choice.
For example, after losing a soccer game, a child might suppress his sadness and smile in front of his friends.
In a perfect world, thought suppression would leave a person with no traces of their unwanted thoughts.
However, psychologists found the opposite in experiments1.
In 1987, Wegner et al conducted an experiment in which participants were told to either suppress or express thoughts about a white bear while thinking aloud what passes their minds.
In the second part of the experiment, participants were told to carry out another action different from their previous ones. That is, those who performed the suppression task during the first part need to express their thoughts about a while bear in the second part. Those who expressed before now suppressed them.
It was found that the suppress-then-express group had significantly more thoughts about a white bear than the other group.
This rebound is also known as the ironic effects or paradoxical effects of suppression2.
In lieu of being suppressed, these thoughts became more prevalent, referred to as hyperaccessibility of suppressed thought.
Effects of suppression
Psychologists have found that suppressed thoughts often return, intrude, or intensify following the effort to prohibit them..
It seems the more a person consciously tries to suppress a thought, the more the unwanted thoughts return to their mind.
Suppression-related effects fall into three categories3:
- After a period of suppression, target thoughts are more likely to occur.
- Immediately following suppression, target thoughts surge.
- During suppression, intrusions of target thoughts intensify.
Ironic process theory
Suppressing a thought initiates two cognitive processes, one controlled and one automatic.
The first step is to search for a distraction to avoid unwanted thoughts. This controlled process is conscious and it expends cognitive resources to keep the found distraction in the conscious mind. Whenever the person needs to avoid thinking of the thought, this cognitive process is initiated to distract the person.
The second step is to notice the unwanted thought. This is an automatic process that runs outside of awareness even though it is triggered by intentional suppression.
Together, these two processes suppress a target thought.
The automatic process continuously looks for a match for the target thought. If it finds the thought, the controlled process carries out the distraction.
Ironically, the very process that is initiated to stop a target thought enhances it.
This search-and-match process makes the person continually sensitive to the very thought that is unwanted and cues associated with it4.
People are most affected by paradoxical effects when they have a lot of information to process, which increases their cognitive load.
Consequences of suppression
Exposure to a traumatic event can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Because of fear conditioning, recurrent, intrusive memories of traumatic experiences are prevalent among those with PTSD, despite repeated efforts to suppress them.
The paradoxical effect shows that this avoidance strategy can backfire, leading to the very mental activity one wants to avoid.
These intrusive images are also vivid, persistent and distressful for individuals suffering from psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder5.
People who suffer from intrusive aversive thoughts may engage in self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation, or suicidal attempts to cope with them6.
Effective thought suppression
Over the years, different suppression strategies have been devised due to its health effects.
Here are some examples that show promising results at different levels7.
Focused self-distraction involves distracting yourself with one specific distractor every time the unwanted thoughts arise. This practice has been found to significantly dampen intrusive thoughts.
Research shows that focused distraction leads to less distress than unfocused distraction for people with OCD thoughts.
Stress and load avoidance
When a person is stressed with more mental loads, they seem to lose focus on the strategies that might facilitate a successful suppression.
Attempts to suppress thought can be undermined by the cognitive demands like remembering things, multitasking, or simply reacting to pressure.
Avoiding stress and mental load can aid in suppressing challenging undesired thoughts.
The postponement of thoughts can be used as an alternative to suppression of thoughts.
The goal of this technique is not to permanently banish the unwanted thought from the mind forever.
Instead, the thought is assigned a worry period, a dedicated half hour each day, to think about it.
Meanwhile, watch for intrusive thoughts, postpone the items until that period, and focus on the present.
Being mindful involves being present in the moment. By focusing on being here now, intrusive thoughts are silenced.
Mediation and focused breathing are two forms of mindfulness. Both have been found to be effective in suppressing thoughts.
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Instead of experiential avoidance, the treatment guides people toward accepting unwanted thoughts and emotional responses, and recognizing this is a difficult path that requires serious commitment.
- 1.Wegner DM, Schneider DJ, Carter SR, White TL. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1987:5-13. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
- 2.Wegner DM, Zanakos S. Chronic Thought Suppression. J Personality. Published online December 1994:615-640. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00311.x
- 3.Wenzlaff RM, Wegner DM. Thought Suppression. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2000:59-91. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.59
- 4.Purdon C. Thought suppression and psychopathology. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online November 1999:1029-1054. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(98)00200-9
- 5.Gagnepain P, Hulbert J, Anderson MC. Parallel Regulation of Memory and Emotion Supports the Suppression of Intrusive Memories. J Neurosci. Published online May 30, 2017:6423-6441. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2732-16.2017
- 6.Najmi S, Wegner DM, Nock MK. Thought suppression and self-injurious thoughts and behaviors. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online August 2007:1957-1965. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.09.014
- 7.Wegner DM. Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist. Published online 2011:671-680. doi:10.1037/a0024985