Top 5 This Week

Related Posts

Suppressing worrying thoughts may improve our mental health

Clearing the mind of fearful thoughts, rather than processing them, may sometimes be good for our mental health.

In the late 1980s, scientists found that people who were first asked to avoid thinking about white bears, and later to think about them, had more thoughts about the animals than people who were only asked to think about white bears. This led to the common belief that blocking out unwanted thoughts ironically causes them to reoccur more often.

As a result, some forms of therapy aim to boost mental health by guiding people to recall and explore difficult experiences rather than suppress them.

Read more:

Doctors are hypnotising people before surgery to help reduce anxiety

Now, Zulkayda Mamat and Michael Anderson at the University of Cambridge have found that some forms of thought suppression can actually be helpful.

“When you avoid a thought by doing or thinking of something else, yes, you tend to attract that thought again,” says Mamat. “But we found that suppressing thoughts by making sure your mind is without any thought – for example by imagining a blank space or imagining pushing that thought out of your mind – can be beneficial.”

Sign up to our Health Check newsletter

Get the most essential health and fitness news in your inbox every Saturday.

Sign up to newsletter

The researchers recruited 120 people and asked them to imagine future scenarios that might occur in their lives over the next two years. The participants weren’t asked whether they had been diagnosed with any mental health conditions, but surveys they took revealed some symptoms.

Each participant came up with 20 negative scenarios they were afraid of, such as losing a loved one, and 36 neutral scenarios such as hanging out the laundry. For each scenario, participants had to provide a cue word that could be used to evoke the thought.

Fresh ideas about the causes of depression are bringing new treatments

Fresh ideas about the causes of depression are bringing new treatments

By upending the idea that a chemical imbalance in the brain is behind depression, we are starting to understand some of its mysteries and develop better treatments

Over Zoom, Mamat and Anderson trained 61 of the participants to suppress negative thoughts, and 59 of them to suppress neutral thoughts, for 20 minutes per day over three days. During each training session, the researchers showed participants the cue word to trigger a thought about a scenario, and then asked them to block the event out of their minds, before presenting a new cue.

Immediately after the last training session, 90 per cent of the people suppressing fears reported that it made the imagined events less vivid in their minds. About 75 per cent of those who suppressed neutral thoughts reported the same.

Participants also self-reported the extent to which they had symptoms related to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety in surveys before and after the training.

The researchers used these reports to calculate that among participants who scored highly for symptoms of PTSD before training, those who suppressed negative thoughts had a 16 per cent reduction in the severity of their symptoms after training, while those who suppressed neutral thoughts saw a 5 per cent fall.

Likewise, in people who reported symptoms of depression before training, suppressing negative thoughts reduced their scores more than suppressing neutral symptoms.

Anxiety badge as featured on Etsy. Set of 5 Anxiety Pin Badges 38mm/buttons/mental health awareness/social anxiety/ GAD/ hidden disability/anxiety warrior/anxious ?6.99 Sold by OliviasPrintEmporium.

Why being more open about mental health could be making us feel worse

The language of the therapy room is creeping into everyday life. Psychologist Lucy Foulkes says therapy speak and overpsychologising could do more harm than good

The surveys also revealed that people believed that suppressing negative, but not neutral, thoughts also boosted their well-being. The beneficial effects on mental health measures still remained three months after training.

Even if the results are confirmed in larger studies, suppressing some thoughts might be harmful, says Mamat.

“There are some thoughts that you should try to think about and process and deal with, but there are other thoughts about the future that you can’t do anything about and suppressing them could help,” says Mamat.

“The idea that attempts to suppress negative thoughts have paradoxical and detrimental effects is quite common among researchers, clinicians and the general public,” says Isaac Fradkin at University College London. “The study convincingly challenges this preconception.”

Journal reference

Science Advances DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adh5292

Popular Articles