You’ve probably heard that it’s a poor idea to suppress negative or disturbing thoughts. Suppressed emotions remain in the unconscious and can affect our moods and behaviors even if we’re unaware of them.
Based on that thinking, many psychotherapy techniques, particularly for illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), involve dredging up suppressed emotions and memories. By dealing with them, the emotions won’t muck around in the unconscious, stealthily interfering with our mental health and peace of mind.
Suppressing emotions means intentionally holding back or concealing one’s outward displays of feelings, especially in situations where one might naturally express emotions.
It involves inhibiting emotional expressions, even if the emotions are strong, and can be a form of emotional self-control.
The idea of unconscious thoughts and memories affecting our conscious lives goes back to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Then, in the 1980s, the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and his famous white bear experiments reinforced this idea. Wegner’s work suggested that the very act of trying to suppress a thought — the thought of a white bear, for example — could cause it to surface more frequently.
Michael Anderson, a researcher who studies memory and cognition at the University of Cambridge, says there was never much evidence to back up Freud and Wegner’s ideas about unconscious thoughts. He says that even the rebound effect described by Wegner was not as robust as it seemed. But the real evidence is in the brain.
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Inhibitory control refers to an organism’s ability to stop an action in response to a stimulus.
“The idea that thought suppression is intrinsically ineffective is at odds with what cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience teach us about cognitive control more broadly,” he says.
Anderson uses the example of reaching for a hot pot. At the last minute, you stop yourself to keep from getting burned. “The capacity to stop ourselves is widely regarded as an essential evolutionarily conserved ability,” he explains. “It’s necessary to help us adapt our behavior in response to changing goals or circumstances.”
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So, what does inhibitory control have to do with suppressed emotions? Inhibitory control plays a role in thought suppression because it is the cognitive mechanism that individuals use to actively block or suppress certain thoughts and emotions. Over two decades ago, Anderson reasoned that because organisms evolved the ability to stop external action, they may also have evolved the ability to stop internal actions, such as retrieving memories.
Indeed, he’s found that the same mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex that stop physical actions can also suppress hippocampal functions, disrupting the encoding, retrieval, and stabilization of memories, thus suppressing memory and disrupting an unwanted thought.
Anderson calls this ability to stop unwanted thoughts “retrieval stopping.” It is, he says, essentially thought suppression. So we do it, but is it psychologically healthy? According to Anderson, it’s not only healthy, it’s necessary. Without this ability, we couldn’t regulate emotional responses and the thoughts accompanying them. We would have little control over our minds.
According to Anderson, Retrieval stopping works something like this: You force yourself to repeatedly confront a reminder of the unwelcome thought. You look at the reminder and acknowledge the feeling, he says. But you do not allow emotions to come to mind.
“Maintain a blank mind, apart from the reminder. Don’t sing, don’t say ‘stop,’ don’t say ‘serenity now.’ Simply confront that reminder and practice staying put without letting your mind leap away,” he explains.
Anderson and his then Ph.D. student Zulkayda Mamat trained participants to use this technique in a recent study. Participants reported that thoughts they had suppressed using this technique were less vivid, less fearful, and turned up less often, even three months later. This result, Anderson says, is contrary to conventional wisdom about suppressing thoughts but consistent with the basic neuroscience on inhibitory control.
Similar techniques are behind a widely used method of psychotherapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It’s a form of mindfulness-based therapy that is widely used in psychotherapy and shares similarities with the concept of suppressing emotions.
The difference is that with ACT, you do look at the thought, not just at the reminder. You observe it but do not judge it, and you don’t give it a lot of meaning, explains Bethany Teachman, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Virginia who has researched suppressed emotions.
Not imbuing the troubling thought with meaning is key, she explains. When you tell yourself not to think about something, you’re actually giving the emotion a lot of power. You’re telling yourself that the thought is important and meaningful, even dangerous.
The important thing, Teachman says, is to realize that you can decide how to respond to a thought. And if the thought doesn’t have significance for you if you don’t give it power, it’s going to stop coming to mind naturally, she says. No suppression necessary. Teachman adds that while no one technique works in every situation, many good treatments are available to help people struggling with negative, repetitive thoughts. Suppressing emotions, once considered harmful, may now be one of them.
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