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Thought Suppression: Why “Don’t Think About It” Doesn’t Work

| What is Thought Suppression | Setting Free The White Bear | Negative Effects | Thought Suppression and Ironic Processes | Negative Effects | Effective Thought Suppression |

Parents are probably familiar with the phrase “Just don’t think about it” and may have used it with their children on occasion to help them deal with their emotional thoughts.

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?

girl sits on grass thinks and looks sad the mental technique of thought suppression is

What is thought suppression

Suppression is the intentional inhibition of 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 or emotional suppression would leave a person with no traces of their unwanted thoughts. 

However, psychologists found the opposite in studies​1​.

boy tries to suppress thought

Setting Free The White Bear

In 1987, Wegner et al. conducted a psychological research in which participants were told to either suppress or express thoughts about a white bear while thinking aloud about what passed their minds.

In the second part of the experiment, participants were told to carry out another action different from their previous ones. Those who performed the suppression task during the first part need to express their thoughts about a white bear in the second part. Those who expressed before now suppressed that particular thought.

It was found that the suppress-then-express group had significantly more thoughts about a white bear than the control group.

This rebound effect is also known as the ironic process theory, ironic effects, and paradoxical effects of suppression​2​.

In lieu of being suppressed, these thoughts became more prevalent, referred to as hyper-accessibility of the suppressed item.

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 suppressed thought returns to their mind.

Suppression-related effects fall into three categories​3​:

  1. After a period of mental suppression, target thoughts are more likely to occur.
  2. Immediately following suppression, target thoughts surge.
  3. During suppression, unwanted intrusions of target thoughts intensify.
girl lies on ground thinking suppression effect psychology

Thought suppression and Ironic processes

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 mental process is a conscious process. It uses cognitive resources to keep the found distraction in the stream of consciousness. 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, by giving it a great deal of attention, the very act that is initiated to stop a targeted thought enhances it. 

This search-and-match process makes the person continually sensitive to the very thought that is unwanted and cues associated with it​4​.

People are most affected by paradoxical effects when they have a lot of information to process, which increases their cognitive load.

a boy in deep thought

Negative effects of suppression

Thought suppression is found to be a key contributor to mental disorders such as such as depression, anxiety disorder, panic attack, and obsessive-compulsive disorder​5​.

Exposure to a traumatic event can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because of fear conditioning, distressing thoughts and intrusive memories of traumatic experiences are prevalent among those with PTSD, despite repeated efforts to suppress them.

The paradoxical effect shows that avoidant thought control strategies can backfire because they lead to the mental activity one wants to avoid.

The recurrent thought is often vivid, persistent, and distressful for individuals suffering from psychological disorders​6​.

People who suffer from unwanted intrusive thoughts may engage in self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation, or suicidal attempts to cope with them​7​.

girl writes in journal

Effective thought suppression

Over the years, different suppression strategies have been devised to address the negative health effects of suppressing. Here are some approaches that show promising results​8​.

Focused distraction

Focused self-distraction involves distracting yourself with one specific distractor every time unwanted intrusions arise. This practice has been found to significantly dampen intrusive thoughts.

Research shows that focused distraction leads to less distress than an unfocused distraction for people with obsessive compulsive disorder.

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 mental demands like remembering things, multitasking, or simply reacting to pressure.

Avoiding stress and mental load can aid in suppressing unwanted negative thoughts.

Thought postponement

The postponement of thoughts can be used as an alternative to suppression.

The goal of this technique is not to permanently banish unwanted thoughts from the mind forever. 

Instead, the thought is assigned a worry period, a dedicated half hour each day, for the mind to think about it.

Meanwhile, watch for intrusive thoughts, postpone the items until that period, and focus on the present.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Focused Breathing

Being mindful involves being present in the moment. By focusing on being here now, automatic thoughts are silenced.

Meditation and focused breathing are two forms of mindfulness. Both have been found to be an effective strategy in suppressing thoughts.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Instead of experiential avoidance, acceptance and commitment treatment guides people toward accepting unwanted or emotional thoughts and recognizing this is a difficult path that requires serious commitment.

References

  1. 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:10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5
  2. 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. 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. 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. 5.
    Amstadter AB, Vernon LL. A Preliminary Examination of Thought Suppression, Emotion Regulation, and Coping in a Trauma-Exposed Sample. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. Published online October 17, 2008:279-295. doi:10.1080/10926770802403236
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    Wegner DM. Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist. Published online 2011:671-680. doi:10.1037/a0024985

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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