A new study conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge challenges the widely-held belief that suppressing negative thoughts is detrimental to mental health. The researchers trained 120 volunteers from around the world to suppress their thoughts about negative events that caused them distress. Surprisingly, not only did the vividness of these thoughts decrease, but the participants also experienced improvements in their mental well-being.
The notion that suppressing thoughts leads to their persistence in the unconscious mind, influencing behavior and well-being negatively, has been a longstanding belief in psychotherapy. However, recent years have seen a shift in this understanding, with claims that suppressing thoughts is ineffective and actually leads to an increase in their occurrence. These ideas have become entrenched in clinical treatments, with guidelines emphasizing the importance of avoiding thought suppression in conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Michael Anderson, along with Dr Zulkayda Mamat, set out to explore how the brain’s inhibitory control mechanism could be utilized to help individuals cope with anxiety and negative thoughts. They wanted to investigate whether the ability to suppress thoughts is an innate skill or one that can be learned and taught.
The study involved 120 participants from 16 countries, each asked to vividly imagine 20 negative events that were currently causing them concern. The participants were then trained to suppress these thoughts using a specific technique over a three-day period. The results showed that the suppressed events became less vivid and less anxiety-inducing. Furthermore, the participants reported improvements in their mental health, particularly those who had practiced suppressing fearful thoughts.
Interestingly, suppressing negative thoughts did not lead to a rebound effect where the thoughts were recalled with greater vividness. In fact, participants who suppressed their fears experienced a decrease in negative mental health scores and an increase in positive mental health scores. These findings challenge the belief that thought suppression is a maladaptive coping strategy.
The benefits of suppressing negative thoughts were long-lasting, with participants continuing to experience reduced levels of depression and negative emotions even three months after the training. Many participants chose to continue practicing the technique in their daily lives, further reinforcing its effectiveness.
The findings of this study suggest that actively suppressing fearful thoughts may be a viable and even beneficial strategy for managing mental health. However, more research is needed to confirm these results. The study was funded by the Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom and the Mind Science Foundation.
Overall, this study provides new insights into the potential benefits of thought suppression, challenging conventional wisdom and opening up new possibilities for managing mental health.