Can You REALLY Stop Thinking About it? | Thought Suppression
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
How many times have you advised a friend to “just stop thinking about it”, when they worried or complained about a specific topic that you hadn’t heard for the first time? Perhaps you have tried to follow the same suggestion for yourself…
Are you familiar with the “white bear” experiment?
Let’s give it a try.
For the next 5 minutes, stop doing whatever you’re busy with, and just DON’T think of a white bear. If a white bear does come to your mind despite the instructions, just make a dot on a piece of paper.
After 5 minutes, notice how many times you actually failed in following the instructions, and the white bear did come to your mind.
This experiment was conducted by Wegner and colleagues in 1987. It was indeed found that subjects were unable to suppress the thought of the white bear, as instructed.
What about you though?
Did you manage to stop thinking about it? Did the method work?
Most probably not…
Thought suppression is the conscious attempt to suppress specific thoughts, a cognitive control strategy.
It can’t really work anyway, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to suggest as much.
We all experience intrusive or automatic thoughts; these are the thoughts that keep coming back uninvited and automatically. They usually represent those things that worry us the most, or issues that are unresolved within us or between us and another person. We don’t necessarily want to be having these thoughts, yet here they come, appearing in our minds to disturb us; and unless we possess good cognitive control skills, they can really distract us from whatever our focus on a given moment was.
It makes perfect sense why you'd want to control disturbing intrusive thoughts, so maybe you try to just suppress them altogether...
It’s noteworthy to add here, that intrusive thoughts are actually a completely normal cognitive phenomenon. If we did not have this capacity, then we’d simply never have “a-ha” moments (spontaneous enlightening instances and epiphanies), and we would always have to consciously decide about what we would like to think about next.
When we try to control our thoughts, we may actually be engaged in an activity that significantly contributes to subjective uncontrollability.
This uncontrollability paradoxically may be a function of attempted over-control; the more we try to control our thinking by means of suppression, the less we can succeed in it. Attempts to control thoughts and worry actually leads to increased intrusive thoughts.
As mentioned already in a previous post, a great body of research in psychology is involved with understanding cognitive processes- how we think. Thought suppression has been a much-loved topic of research in the last 30 years.
For example, in another experiment it was found that intrusive thoughts significantly increased when people were instructed to suppress those thoughts, to just stop thinking about them (Salkovskis & Campbell, 1994).
Test yourself some more:
Write down in your journal the thoughts or issues that upset you the most. Then alternate between days that you will simply be making a note in your journal, whenever these thoughts occur in your mind, and other days when you will try to suppress these thoughts altogether.
What you will probably realize, is that on the suppress days, the thought to be suppressed will appear much more in your journal- even double as much, like it was found in another relevant experiment.
Again and again, thought suppression has been found to increase intrusive thoughts.
Thought suppression is typically applied as a strategy to control worrisome material. Worry by itself is regarded as a form of cognitive avoidance; when we worry about something, we actually avoid thinking about something else that may be more substantial and productive, or we avoid engaging in an activity that we have to accomplish -so worry can be even regarded as a form of procrastination!
One way that thought suppression contributes to the maintenance of worry instead of the opposite, is that it keeps us “locked" in worry mode.
Intrusive thoughts of the subject we try to avoid worrying about keep coming back and become incubated in our mind. Thus, we remain in hypervigilance in order to monitor threat as fast as possible, therefore we perceive as threatening stimuli that may be otherwise harmful because of an attentional bias to threat (i.e. our attention system is “programmed” to detect threatening stimuli and gets activated when perceived threat is spotted).
As a result, possible dysfunctional beliefs we may have about the topic that worries us fail to be disconfirmed. Because of the interaction between our cognitive system and our emotional system, the emotional consequences of worry (for example, our anxiety that rises when we contemplate negative and catastrophic potential outcomes) are further increased by the attempts not to think about it, thus the circle is constantly fed, and it may seem there’s no way out of it.
Teaching a person to control the occurrence of intrusive thoughts can be beneficial only if this changes the way in which this occurrence is interpreted. After all, how we think about things is what matters.
Metacognitions (i.e. how we think about our thoughts) and metaworry (i.e. how we perceive our worry) are great contributors in the maintenance of said thoughts. Paradoxically, the key to the control of intrusive thoughts may be realizing that the exercise of control is both pointless (since it does not work) and unnecessary!
Not only thought suppression does not work, but like anything else that you keep hiding"under the carpet" , it can backfire to your disadvantage.
Suppressed emotions get bottled up inside of you, and this can result to sudden outbursts that may harm you and your relationships unnecessarily- so beware, and find better ways to cope with your undesired thoughts than just "swallowing them down".
Remember that pushing a thought away will not make it disappear! On the contrary, it will increase its potential intensity and force with which it can jump out next time.
Knowing this, you can now more freely let go of your urge to stop thinking about anything that troubles you.
Alternatively, there are things you can do to help yourself instead of trying to suppress your thoughts on a matter you’d rather you did not fuss about...
Like emphasized often in this blog, but also in the way that I work altogether, acceptance is vital for self-growth.
Instead of being critical and judgemental to yourself about the subject of your worries, probably stemming from beliefs such as “You should not be worrying about this”, “You’re weak if you worry about this”, “A stronger person would not worry about this” etc., accept the fact that you do with self-compassion.
Give up the “should” statements, for they implicate judgement towards yourself; whatever you think of, there are reasons that you do, it is ok that you do. You may want to try to understand what are the deeper reasons behind your worry… Being strict and harsh to yourself will not help you go forward, because it will increase feelings of shame and guilt, both well-known for keeping us stuck in dark places.
2. Commitment to change
Accepting any truth about yourself is not a sufficient condition for change. It must be accompanied with a clear intention to be different, if there is something about yourself and the way you think you’d rather change.
Try to set up a clear plan of action about changing this aspect of yourself. Ask yourself:
What do you need in order to move forward?
What do you need from yourself in this direction, which resources will be necessary?
How would your Ideal Self act?
Do you need anything from someone else, besides yourself? (i.e. support, reassurance, understanding, clarity from another person etc.)
The most successful way to change a misinterpretation is to help the person suggest an alternative, less threatening interpretation of their experience.
For instance, if you worry about a certain topic, a step closer to reappraisal would be to scrutinize and look closer at the issue at hand, and then try to modify the thoughts surrounding it.
What is it exactly that you worry about?
Is it a fact, or an opinion?
What are the alternative, more balanced perspectives you can add to your perception and the way you think about this matter?
Thought suppression does not work, but distraction techniques have been proved to result in decreased frequency of unwanted thoughts. Distraction means the allocation of attention on alternative stimuli and activities, than the present focus of attention (i.e. your worry topic).
If you find yourself extensively worrying about a certain topic, you may decide to actively and mindfully engage with another activity, once the topic pops up in your mind.
Distraction is a method of avoidance, however- so unless you process the topic that keeps coming up, it will continue to return. Distraction is a way to focus your attention elsewhere, but it will not make the “hot topic” disappear from your mind altogether.
5. Delayed Worry
As discussed in a previous blog post, a way to control your worry is to postpone it for a moment when thinking about this certain topic may be more appropriate. This way, you gain control of your worry by not allowing it to interfere with whatever activity you’d rather be busy with. Be a king in your own mind, don’t let your mind rule you!
6. Diffusion techniques
Defusion techniques are ways that we can learn to disengage or decrease our emotional involvement with negative thoughts. Such exercises can help you see your thoughts exactly as they are- as mental products of your own mind- instead of facts that you end up believing in. They teach you how to be more mindful and observant of your thinking, without coming in direct dialogue with it.
For example, you may want to think that your thoughts are passengers on a bus, your mindbus- but essentially, You are the driver of that bus. Passengers can get on the bus, and get off again- but the mindbus can continue on its course. Just leave the thoughts pass you by, without interfering with them.
Or you may be trained to observe your thoughts as you’d observe the landscape out the window while travelling on a train.
The result of defusion techniques is a decrease in your attachment to your negative thoughts.
In conclusion, imagine your disturbing thought is like a balloon.
If you are swimming and try to push the balloon underwater, to suppress it under you, what will happen?
...The balloon will come up on the surface with even bigger force...
...It can even hit you quite hard when it floats back up to you...
Instead, you can let the balloon float, give up your need to control your thought, and see what else you can do that can actually work-
to your benefit, not against you.
References and Inspiration:
Salkovskis, P. M. & Campbell, P. (1994). Thought suppression in naturally occurring negative intrusive thoughts. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 32, 1-8.
Salkovskis, P. M. & Kirk, J. (1997). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. In Clark, D. M. & Fairburn, C. G. (Eds), Science and Practice of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (pp. 190-208). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., and White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 5-13.
Wells, A. & Butler, G. (1997). Generalized anxiety disorder. In Clark, D. M. & Fairburn, C. G. (Eds), Science and Practice of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (pp. 156-178). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.