Thought suppression is common whether you’re trying not to think about certain foods when you’re dieting or to shut out painful memories and thoughts. But have you ever asked yourself, does thought suppression work and are there better alternatives? This article while try to answer that question.
What Is Thought Suppression?
Wenzlaff, Rude, Taylor, Stultz, and Sweatt (2001) and Maccallum and Bryant (2010) both expertly explained what thought suppression is. Which goes a little like this. Thought suppression involves two mechanisms. These mechanisms are the operating process and the monitoring process. The operating process is an active internal distraction activity that seeks to divert attention from unwanted thoughts. The monitoring process works in tandem (mostly) with the operating process, looking for indications that thought suppression has failed. This means the monitoring process can activate or escalate the operating process if failure is detected.
The Problem With Thought Suppression
Both Wenzlaff, Rude, Taylor, Stultz, and Sweatt (2001) and Maccallum and Bryant (2010) say that these two processes can cause a paradoxical effect. The monitoring process assures that our unwanted thoughts are never far from our conscious awareness. Because the distraction activity of the operating process requires a lot more energy than the monitoring process, the operating process is easier to interrupt when energy resources need to be redirected.
In short, thought suppression can work as long as you have the energy to keep yourself distracted. But, if something else requires your attention, then the monitoring process can make the unwanted thoughts enter our awareness.
According to Wenzlaff, Rude, Taylor, Stultz, and Sweatt (2001), there is a large body of evidence that shows that a simple task designed to increase your cognitive load will impair your ability to distract yourself from your suppressed thoughts. Meaning, you’ll find these unwanted thoughts in your conscious mind bothering you again. What makes this worse is that certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety, can also interrupt our thought suppression (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010). An overactive mind can also make this harder.
Thought suppression has been identified as one of the most common forms of cognitive avoidance strategies across a range of mental health conditions (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010). Thus, I’ll try to cover as many of these as I can in this article.
Thought Suppression In Mental Illness
Although thought suppression is interlocked with a lot of mental health conditions. Such as it being the cause of and/or maintaining factor in depression, anxiety, phobias, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD; Purdon, 1999). It has also been linked to attentional bias in nonclinical participants (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010).
Many people get into substance dependency because thought suppression and other less unhealthy avoidance strategies don’t work for them. Instead, they turn to substance use to avoid these thoughts and feelings. And, as tolerance increases over repeated use, then then more they have to use to engage in this form of thought suppression.
According to Field and Cox (2008), for someone with substance dependency to suppress their attentional bias and their subject cravings, they need to have a fairly intact inhibitory control. However, if they’re impulsive or have a compromised inhibitory control, then they’re more likely to experience the paradoxical effect. Basically, they’ll have a stronger attentional bias and subject cravings, making thought suppression extremely difficulty.
It is believed that the attentional bias present in anxiety disorders might cause thought suppression, and other attempts at avoidance, to trigger the hypervigilance to threat cues (Lavy and van den Hout, 1994, as cited in Purdon, 1999).
That doesn’t surprise me. Any time I’ve tried thought suppression, the opposite always happens to me regarding my anxiety disorders and my psychotic episodes. For me, it was like shining a spotlight on the things I didn’t want to think about. This would then dial my anxiety symptoms up to 11, making a psychotic episode extremely likely.
According to Wenzlaff and Wegner (2000) study, the effects of thought suppression on depression are as follows. For people who are at risk of developing depression, it might be difficult to detect the negative thoughts and symptoms without disrupting their thought suppression. But, the risk of depression relapse could be detected by the coping strategies they use, like thought suppression.
Although in the short-term, thought suppression in depression might help with creating a positive mindset, it comes with risks. This is because they’re susceptible to being disrupted by demands on cognitive resource reallocation (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010). Because of this, it can trigger ingrained patterns of negative thinking, inviting a depressive state of mind (Wenzlaff and Wegner, 2000).
Wenzlaff and Wegner (2000) state that using thought suppression when depressed can have a big drawback. That thought suppression may prolong or worsen depression by strengthening mood-relevant associations. Associations that attentional biases will draw to your attention.
This is supported by Purdon (1999), who argues that suppression of depressive thoughts will result in more persistent occurrences of those thoughts. This is because of the aforementioned attentional biases. But, also because people with depression have lower cognitive effort and resource to assign to tasks like thought suppression.
Even people who have a history of depression but are currently asymptomatic can still be found to rely on thought suppression, which puts them at risk of relapsing. Because, as I’ve said, the thought suppression is easily interrupted.
Complicated grief (CG)
Bereavement wasn’t likely one you expected to see in this list, but it is. And here’s why. Those experiencing grief will probably try to avoid reminders of the person or people they’ve lost. Which can involve using thought suppression as an avoidance strategy (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010).
Again, attentional bias plays a role in undermining thought suppression by drawing someone’s attention to the loss-related event (Maccallum and Bryant, 2010). Grieving is difficult, but it’s potentially made harder by efforts to suppress thoughts about the person(s)/pet you’ve lost. So allow yourself to grieve.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
The ultimate form of intrusive thoughts is OCD, making thought suppression a common coping strategy in those with the condition (Verywell Mind; and Wenzlaff and Wegner, 2000). Wenzlaff and Wegner (2000) believes that there is one common result found in the limited studies into OCD, and that’s the failure of thought suppression. My guess would be that people with OCD have a constant flow of intrusive thoughts, which would make it a war they can’t win with their mind, as their cognitive resources aren’t infinite. More research should be done to get to the bottom of that, as this is just my hypothesis.
Even without having a mental health condition, trying to suppress intrusive thoughts can cause the opposite effect. Intrusive thoughts are created automatically with no effort, but suppressing it requires a lot of cognitive resources (Verywell Mind). Therefore, if you don’t have the resources needed, the intrusive thoughts will become stronger, rather than getting suppressed.
I don’t know if you remember, but a while a go I did an article on a product called Inner Demons. The person behind that product has OCD. They created the Inner Demons as something you could talk to, allowing you to deal with the intrusive thoughts or your other negative thoughts. This can help slow your thoughts down, making them more manageable to deal with. It will also allow you to face your thoughts, rather than suppressing them.
Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Survivors of trauma will use avoidance strategies, such as thought suppression, to get relief from distress and an increased sense of control. However, studies have found that this can cause negative reinforcement and generalise their trauma stimuli to non-trauma-related ones (Burrows, 2013). As such, this will affect a person’s emotional processing of the trauma as well as maintain the PTSD symptoms.
Alternative Strategies To Thought Suppression
If thought suppression isn’t working for you, then there are other methods you can use. It has been suggested that focusing on desirable goals and learning how to use more effective distractions are suitable alternatives (Wenzlaff and Wegner, 2000).
However, I believe there are two strategies that stand above all the rest. I suggest both of these all the time, but it’s only one that I really hold in high esteem. But, people are individuals and you shouldn’t assume that everyone can handle the one method I prefer above all others. It’s also important to give people a choice. Thus, I’ll talk about both strategies. Let me know if you agree after you’ve read what I’m about to say.
The first strategy
Instead of using thought suppression to control your unwanted intrusive thoughts, try acknowledging them and then challenging them (Verywell Mind). This is a pretty common, yet often effective way to show you that your intrusive thoughts are misleading you. Look for evidence that the intrusive thoughts are wrong, and put those thoughts in their place. This can help with making the intrusive thoughts less distressing. It can also make for a good journal prompt.
The second strategy
Hands down, this is my favour strategy for dealing with unwanted intrusive thoughts. It’s pretty simple in its approach, but can be difficult to do in practice. All you need to do is accept these thoughts (Wenzlaff and Wegner, 2000), that they’re something that will happen. However, you don’t engage with them in any way.
For me, and many other people, any engagement with these kinds of thoughts just feeds them and strengthens them. But ignoring them strips them of their power over you. However, it can be difficult to endure. I know that first-hand. I used it to better manage my anxiety disorders and to bring my psychosis under control.
The short-term effects of this approach can be hard. I had to give up all my safety behaviours to make this work for me. However, the long-term benefits are amazing. I went from having several psychotic episodes a day and episodes that lasted hours, sometimes days, weeks, and even months, to barely having a couple a year. Before doing this, I could barely leave the house, and I had to drink alcohol to get through the day and to get through my undergraduate degree.
Essentially, this approach worked for me by building up experiences of living through what my intrusive thoughts were telling me would happen, by showing myself it wouldn’t happen. Each successful application of this made it weaker and weaker, to the point my quality of life has changed massively. This is why it’s my favourite method.
In a nut shell. Intrusive thoughts, whether good or bad, are harmless, unless you give those thoughts attention. No attention, no energy to stay in your mind rent free.
Thought suppression is a commonly used safety and avoidance behaviour, which can be found in many mental health conditions. The problem is, it can only be successfully used for as long as you have the cognitive recourses to keep the process running. Anything that can and will distract this process or take its much needed cognitive resources will cause thought suppression to fail. Meaning, these thoughts will come back, and often come back with avengence.
That doesn’t even take into account the effects of attentional biases, which will undermine the process of thought suppression as easily as a hot knife through butter. Basically, it’s not a matter of if, but when, thought suppression will let you down.
So, what do you think about the two alternative methods of thought suppression I outlined? Let me know in the comments box below.
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Unwanted Life readers.
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Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology, 51(1), 59-91. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.59 and https://grupoact.com.ar/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2000-Thought-suppression-Wenzlaff-Wegner.pdf.
Wenzlaff, R. M., Rude, S. S., Taylor, C. J., Stultz, C. H., & Sweatt, R. A. (2001). Beneath the veil of thought suppression: Attentional bias and depression risk. Cognition & Emotion, 15(4), 435-452. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930125871 and https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephanie-Rude/publication/247515056_Beneath_the_veil_of_thought_suppression_Attentional_bias_and_depression_risk/links/58e424360f7e9bbe9c94d143/Beneath-the-veil-of-thought-suppression-Attentional-bias-and-depression-risk.pdf.