The commonly-held belief that attempting to suppress negative thoughts is bad for our mental health could be wrong, a new study from scientists at the University of Cambridge suggests.
New research suggests it can be!
The commonly-held belief that attempting to suppress negative thoughts is bad for our mental health could be wrong, a new study suggests. Researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit trained 120 volunteers worldwide to suppress thoughts about adverse events that worried them. They found that not only did these become less vivid, but the participants’ mental health also improved.
Talking to Science Daily about the research, Professor Michael Anderson, who carried out the study with his team, said,
“We’re all familiar with the Freudian idea that if we suppress our feelings or thoughts, then these thoughts remain in our unconscious, influencing our behavior and wellbeing perniciously. The whole point of psychotherapy is to dredge up these thoughts so one can deal with them and rob them of their power.
In more recent years, we’ve been told that suppressing thoughts is intrinsically ineffective and that it actually causes people to think the thought more — it’s the classic idea of ‘Don’t think about a pink elephant.”
Anderson said these ideas have become dogma in the clinical treatment realm, with national guidelines talking about thought avoidance as a significant maladaptive coping behavior to be eliminated and overcome in depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
How was the research carried out?
When COVID-19 appeared in 2020, like many researchers, Professor Anderson wanted to see how his own research could be used to help people through the pandemic.
His interest lay in a brain mechanism known as inhibitory control (the ability to override our reflexive responses) and how it might be applied to memory retrieval, mainly to stop the retrieval of negative thoughts when confronted with potent reminders to them.
Dr Zulkayda Mamat, a Ph.D. student in Professor Anderson’s lab at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the time, believed that inhibitory control was critical in overcoming trauma in experiences occurring to herself and many others she has encountered in life. She had wanted to investigate whether this was an innate ability or something that was learned and hence could be taught.
Dr Mamat said,
“Because of the pandemic, we saw a need in the community to help people cope with surging anxiety. There was already a mental health crisis, a hidden epidemic of mental health problems, worsening. So with that backdrop, we decided to see if we could help people cope better.”
Further details about the study
Professor Anderson and Dr. Mamat recruited 120 people across 16 countries to test whether it might be possible and beneficial for people to practice suppressing their fearful thoughts. Their findings were published in the publication Science Advances.
In the study, each participant was asked to think of several scenarios that might plausibly occur in their lives over the next two years — 20 negative ‘fears and worries’ that they were afraid might happen, 20 positive ‘hopes and dreams,’ and 36 routine and mundane neutral events. The fears had to be worries of current concern to them that have repeatedly intruded into their thoughts.
Each event had to be specific to them and something they had vividly imagined occurring. For each scenario, they were to provide a cue word (an obvious reminder that could be used to evoke the event during training) and a key detail (a single word expressing a central event detail). For example:
- Negative — visiting one’s parents at the hospital due to COVID-19, with the cue ‘Hospital’ and the detail ‘Breathing.’
- Neutral — a visit to the opticians, with the cue ‘Optician’ and the detail ‘Cambridge.’
- Positive — seeing one’s sister get married, with the cue ‘Wedding’ and the detail ‘Dress.’
Participants were asked to rate each event on several points: vividness, likelihood of occurrence, distance in the future, level of anxiety about the event (or level of joy for positive events), frequency of thought, degree of current concern, long-term impact, and emotional intensity.
Participants also completed questionnaires to assess their mental health. However, no one was excluded, allowing the researchers to look at a broad range of participants, including many with severe depression, anxiety, and pandemic-related post-traumatic stress.
It has long since been thought that suppressing negative thoughts was not only bad for us but could do us long-term damage in terms of mental health. As it turns out from this latest research, the opposite could be true.
Perhaps in light of the research findings, training and awareness will improve to find new ways to constructively process such negative thoughts, helping us better deal with issues that were once thought to be potentially causing us harm.
What do you think about the research findings? Tell us your views in the comments.