Have Negative Thoughts? Suppressing Them Could Help Some People, New Study Suggests

New research finds fighting back against the negative chatter may actually lead to improved mental health and well-being.

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On any given day, we’re bombarded with negative emotions and memories weaving webs of self-doubt and anxiety. These upsetting thoughts may entrap us from making decisions, paint our self-image negatively, and contribute to poor mental health.

To combat the bad vibes, we’re often told not to fight our feelings, that doing so only causes the negativity to come back stronger and peskier, making us even more distressed. However, according to new research from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., thought suppression done right may actually benefit mental health in some people.

When participants were taught to suppress either their fearful or neutral thoughts over the course of three days, they reported feeling less anxious, having fewer negative feelings, and being less depressed. What's even more interesting is that these benefits lasted for at least three months. In other words, the participants found the practice beneficial enough to keep at it for at least three months after the trial ended. The people who gained the most from the training were those who were naturally more anxious or had experienced pandemic-related posttraumatic stress.

These findings were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

Silencing the Chatter

Recent research has shown that there might be some benefits to thought suppression. For example, when people engage a specific part of their brain to suppress intrusive thoughts, they seem to be more resilient in the face of traumatic experiences and have fewer anxiety-related problems. They even tend to forget the thoughts they were trying to suppress.

But here's the catch: There hasn't been much direct evidence on this topic because it's considered risky to ask people, especially those who are vulnerable or struggling with mental health issues, to suppress their distressing thoughts. So, whether thought suppression is genuinely helpful for mental health is unclear.

In the new study, the University of Cambridge researchers recruited 120 people across 16 countries, videoconferencing with each participant to identify a number of future events consisting of three categories: negative (“fears and worries”), positive (“hopes and dreams”), and neutral. Events from these three categories were assigned cue words meaningfully specific to the participant.

They were then asked to practice either an “Imagine” or “No-Imagine” task, which involves a form of thought suppression called retrieval stopping. Over three days, they were shown cues related to these future events for four seconds and were asked to either vividly imagine them or stop themselves from imagining them. For the "No-Imagine" trials, participants were told to recognize the feared event indicated by the cue but then try to suppress any thoughts or images about it. Both groups practiced their tasks extensively, imagining or suppressing 36 times for each event over the three days. In the “Imagine” task, for ethical reasons, no participant was given a negative event, only positive or neutral ones.

By the end of the three days and three months following, the results were very encouraging: Participants who culled their inner demons felt less distress and a greater sense of control over their thoughts, leading to an improved sense of overall well-being.

For participants with post-traumatic stress, suppressing their negative thoughts saw a 16 percent drop in negative mental health scores (compared to five percent for those suppressing neutral thoughts) and a nearly 10 percent rise in positive mental health scores (compared to a one percent decrease in the neutral thoughts group).

On top of that, it didn’t seem like thought suppression led to any negativity resurging with a vengeance. Out of the 120 participants, only one person had better memory recall for suppressed events after the training. Six out of 61 participants who suppressed fearful thoughts reported more vividness for those thoughts after the training, but this wasn’t much different from the vividness that participants who hadn’t suppressed their thoughts reported.

“What we found runs counter to the accepted narrative,” Michael Anderson, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Cambridge who led the study, said in the press release. “Although more work will be needed to confirm the findings, it seems like it is possible and could even be potentially beneficial to actively suppress our fearful thoughts.”

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