Understanding the impact of Thought Suppression on our Mental Health

Everybody is confronted by intrusive thoughts, painful images or memories; it is natural to want to push them away.

In the self-help book The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the Nobel-prize winning philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed the impact of thought suppression on chronic anxiety, explaining that while it may provide temporary relief, it can ultimately exacerbate the problem by intensifying the focus on the suppressed thoughts.

“Probably all these people employ the wrong technique for dealing with their fear; whenever it comes into their mind, they try to think of something else; they distract their thoughts with amusement or work, or what not.
Now every kind of fear grows worse by not being looked at. The effort of turning away one’s thoughts is a tribute to the horribleness of the spectre from which one is averting one’s gaze; the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it becomes completely familiar. In the end familiarity will blunt its terrors; the whole subject will become boring, and our thoughts will turn away from it, not, as formerly, by an effort of will, but through mere lack of interest in the topic.
When you find yourself inclined to brood on anything, no matter what, the best plan always is to think about it even more than you naturally would until at last its morbid fascination is worn off.”

Trying to suppress a thought in an effort to alleviate our distress is likely to make it more intrusive. The harder we try not to think of something, the more we end up thinking about it and the more that thought backfires and intrudes into our consciousness. This can negatively affect our emotions, decision making abilities and focus.
For the next 60 seconds, try as hard as you can not to think of a white bear. Count how many times you think of a white bear? You will probably discover that it's quite challenging as the image keeps coming back to your mind every minute. The effect is even stronger when we attempt to suppress an emotional thought. These paradoxical effects of thought suppression were initially demonstrated in a study by Daniel Wegner in 1987.

Thought suppression is a common feature of conditions such as depression, anxiety and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). For instance, concerning OCD, the relief obtained from coping with or stopping obsessions is only temporary, as these strategies only help you feel less anxious initially. In fact, you continue to believe more strongly that obsessions pose a threat. This initiates a vicious cycle in which you try to exert control over the obsession.

At my practice, I employ Cognitive Restructuring, Mindfulness and Acceptance Therapy . It is suggested that these techniques are helpful for managing intrusive thoughts, reducing their power, and making them less noticeable. Rather than suppressing negative thoughts, it is healthier to acknowledge the associated emotions.

Cognitive restructuring, a core component of CBT, involves identifying and challenging the distorted thoughts, and replacing them with more realistic ones. By learning to reframe your thoughts in a more adaptive way, you can reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts on your emotions and behaviours.

 I also employ mindfulness to teach techniques to my clients, helping them settle their brain and body into the present moment. This interrupts the habit of dwelling on future “what if” scenarios and fosters greater awareness of the present moment. By trying not to suppress uncomfortable thoughts or emotions but instead allowing oneself to sit with them, even for a short time, the body (along with the mind) begins to feel safer, more relaxed and more balanced. Negative thought patterns are found to be more prevalent in those who do not practise mindfulness.

Thought substitution is another technique employed to cease ruminating on distressing or unwanted thoughts. If you catch yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, notice and acknowledge the thoughts without dwelling on them, and try to replace them with a positive one. Thought substitution can help you Counterbalance a negative thought with a positive response. The intrusive thought will then lose the power it has over you.

For more details on how I can support you in managing your overthinking and exploring alternative coping techniques, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email: sarra@freeourmind.co.uk

©Free Our Mind

Powered by WebHealer