Suppressing negative thoughts can be healthy, according to a study.

Suppressing negative thoughts can be healthy, according to a study.

Suppressing Negative Thoughts: A Surprising Path to Mental Health Improvement

Source: HealthDay Reporter

A longstanding belief in mental health has been that confronting fears is the key to alleviating anxiety and depression. However, a recent study challenges this notion, suggesting that suppressing negative thoughts and worries might actually be a more effective strategy for certain individuals. In fact, the study found that mental health improved for participants who underwent training to suppress their fears about negative future events. Surprisingly, those with worse mental health symptoms initially experienced the most improvement when they learned to suppress negative thoughts.

These findings contradict the argument that thought suppression is an ineffective coping mechanism. For decades, experts have warned that pushing distressing thoughts out of awareness leads to unconscious influences on behavior, dreams, and emotions. However, emerging evidence from neuroscience and psychology suggests that people can successfully suppress negative thoughts, leading to a reduction in the memory of unpleasant thoughts.

Published in the journal Science Advances on September 20, the study offers a different perspective on suppression as a coping strategy. Despite this, some experts still maintain that suppressing negative thoughts does not address the underlying core beliefs responsible for fear and may not lead to sustainable change. For instance, Scott Glassman, the director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, argues that simply ignoring fear or negative thoughts fails to modify the fundamental beliefs that generate those fears in the first place.

To investigate the impact of suppressing negative thoughts, senior researcher Michael Anderson and his colleagues from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge conducted an extensive study involving 120 adults from 16 countries. Over the course of three days, participants underwent online training where they were repeatedly instructed to suppress thoughts associated with distressing, mundane, and positive events.

During the training, participants were asked to acknowledge the nature of the event and intentionally block any mental images or thoughts that the reminder might provoke. The study aimed to assess the effects of consistent thought suppression on mental health and emotional well-being.

Surprisingly, the results showed that suppressing negative thoughts reduced depression, anxiety, and worry, thus aligning with the researchers’ expectations. Moreover, participants retested three months later continued to experience lower levels of depression and negative emotions. Although the benefits related to anxiety, well-being, and positive emotions seemed to fade, the majority of participants (80%) continued to use the suppression strategy during the follow-up period. Notably, the more participants employed this strategy, the greater their improvement in mental health.

Contrary to expectations, the study found that individuals with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) benefited the most from thought suppression. Participants with PTSD who suppressed negative thoughts experienced a 16% improvement in negative mental health scores and a 10% improvement in positive mental health.

Interestingly, the study also demonstrated that suppression did not lead to a “rebound effect,” where suppressed events are recalled more vividly. The absence of such an effect suggests that suppression may be a promising avenue for dealing with some mental and emotional issues without resorting to medication.

The findings of this study challenge traditional approaches to mental health, suggesting that clinicians could consider thought suppression as an alternative to medications. However, it is important to differentiate suppression from denial. While denial involves completely disregarding the existence of a problem, suppression encourages individuals to confront the situation and intentionally regulate their distressing thoughts.

Suppression of negative thoughts occurs naturally during psychotherapy, where patients often avoid discussing upsetting topics. This technique allows individuals to sidestep perceived important issues and focus on unrelated aspects, leading to enhanced overall well-being.

It is worth noting that some psychological therapies, like exposure therapy for anxiety, also involve thought suppression. Exposure therapy gradually exposes individuals to fear-inducing stimuli and promotes the realization that the feared events are not as threatening as perceived. Through repeated exposure, individuals learn to regulate distressing thoughts associated with the events.

However, caution is necessary when interpreting these results as other studies indicate that suppression can exacerbate certain mental health problems. In cases of substance abuse, suppression has been associated with increased cravings and rumination, as well as lower levels of mindfulness. Additionally, suppression has been linked to increased worry in individuals with depression.

Surprisingly, the study found that imagining positive events did not significantly improve mental health compared to imagining neutral, benign events. This suggests that the main benefit lies in suppressing negative thoughts rather than focusing on positive thinking.

The research conducted by Anderson and his team emphasizes the potential of thought suppression as an effective tool for improving mental health. The study’s results encourage further exploration and consideration of thought suppression as a valuable strategy in mental health treatment. Understanding the complexities of thought suppression can reshape traditional approaches to therapy and offer new methods for cultivating well-being.

More information can be found at HealthDay about anxiety.