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Why You Can’t Stop Thinking of THAT: How Thought Suppression Backfires

Updated: May 25

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute" (Doestovesky).

I tried. I looked at a word I wasn’t supposed to think of, and tried again, to inevitably do just that in vivid detail. For experiment sake, try a few: don’t think of clementines. Swings. A rainy night.

Whether the aim is to forget every single word of “Flowers in December” that has etched itself in my head, or not want any part of an argument replayed – the thoughts fester in the mind at a regrettably fast pace of exactly that, over and over, ad nauseam.

Many people wonder how unwanted thoughts can be stopped, and are often overcome by confusion, agitation, and exhaustion by the inability to keep certain thoughts out. Intrusive thoughts often occur as part of any of the anxiety disorder spectrum. They are one of the most common symptom ranging from mildly irritating to painfully disruptive, and are quoted by many to cause sleeplessness, restlessness, and irritability.

Our intuition to things unwanted, including unwanted thoughts could be to repress them, however, our intuition, according to research showcases that it does exactly the opposite. Like the polar bears and the swinging clementines on a rainy night. Not only is the suppressing wrong as the research states, it has the potential of making the situation far worse.

Suppressing emotions:

Per research, the more one suppresses the unwanted thoughts, ironically, the likelier they are to return to those thoughts. The return to the unwanted thoughts, called the rebound effect showcases how suppression impacts our emotions. Since the polar bears and the swinging clementines don’t hold much emotional value for you, the rebound effect would not be as strong, however the stronger the emotional tie – the higher the probability of hitting the rebound effect and in turn – a flood of intrusive thoughts. Adding to this, if the unwanted thought is connected to a behavior, the chances of increasing that behavior increase.

So how does one remove the unwanted? Is taming the mind a possibility? Why is it that when we try so hard to rid ourselves of a thought that it plagues us? According to Wegner’s ironic processes theory, the aftermath of the rebound effect is an essential part of the process of suppression.

Here is what happens according to the ironic process theory:

Step 1: I think of something else as a way of distraction to avoid the thought I don’t want.

Step 2: Enter unconscious monitoring – the process that checks to ensure I am truly not sabotaging myself, unfortunately doing just that. It checks relentlessly if I am thinking about the thoughts that I am not supposed to be thinking to monitor if the conscious process is working a-okay.

Step 3: Trouble bound: The moment I stop actively and consciously expending my energy to distract myself – the unconscious process, steadfast worker that it is, continues looking for the thoughts I was trying to suppress.

Step 4: In trouble: As soon as the unconscious process finds anything remotely like the targeted thoughts I was trying to evade, it triggers the thoughts again, leaving me stuck in a loop of the very thoughts I was trying to forget.

The paradoxical impact of thought suppression increases understanding in multiple contexts like substance abuse, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. For example, research on thought suppression reveals that smokers attempting to quit smoking who try to suppress thoughts about it had more cravings than ones who did not, and ended up smoking more than the ones who didn’t suppress the thoughts. Interestingly, there is similar data highlighting a similar effect of thought suppression of alcohol. Researchers noticed that in depression where suffers often struggle with negative thinking patterns, increase and intensify these negative thought patterns with thought suppression.

Many times our patterns of negative thinking or intrusive thoughts hint at issues that need to be talked about and that can be put into prospective and managed with mental health counseling. If persistent thoughts distress your everyday life managing the underlying issues and discovering mindfulness based approaches can bring relief. Email: irem.choksy@gmail.com.

References:

Najmi, Sadia and Daniel M. Wegner. 2009. Hidden complications of thought suppression. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy 2(3): 210-223. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/9961303/Complications%20of%20Suppression%20NajmiWegner%2012_18_08-1.pdf?sequence=1

Image: Gian D on Unsplash.com

Inspired by: Gondry, Michel, director. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


©2020 by Irem Choksy, LMFT


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©2020 by Irem Choksy.