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Try NOT to think about this: Why stuffing your problems doesn't work

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You have a problem.

And you keep thinking and thinking about it.

It’s driving you nuts.

To get rid of the thoughts, do you ever find yourself saying something like this:

“If I just don’t think about it, it will go away.”

I’ve got news for you.

Trying to make bad stuff go away by not thinking about it doesn’t work.

And it might even make it worse.

Putting a lid on your thinking

What you’re trying to do is suppress your thought.

Conventional wisdom says that the brave, strong way to address intrusive thoughts about problems is to just ignore them – stuff them – until they go away.

Kind of how you might treat your dog who is begging too much. If you ignore him long enough, he’ll lose interest and wander off.

While it might work for your dog, studies have shown that the opposite is true for us humans.

Researchers did an experiment where they asked subjects to report thoughts that were going through their heads for a period of five minutes. However, before they started, they were told not to think of a white bear.

If they did think of a white bear, they were to ring a bell they had been given.

What happened?

Bells rang forth like slot machines in Vegas.

Turns out that trying not to think of something makes you think about it quite a bit.

Subsequent studies not only showed the same effect, but also found that people who tried to suppress a thought experienced a rebound effect and thought about the subject more frequently than they had before.

And, to top it all off, suppressors felt worse emotionally after they tried to put a lid on their thinking.

Express, don’t suppress

Learning to handle problems, repetitive thoughts, and negative emotions are essential skills in being resilient.

To bounce back from your habit of trying to stuff problems, try this:

1. Express the very thing you’re trying to suppress.

Researchers not only found that suppression increases your thoughts about a situation and makes you feel bad about them, but that expressing these same thoughts reduces the frequency of them.

So, when other subjects in the study above were told to actively think about and visualize a white bear for five minutes before being asked not to think about it, the bells rang less often than they did in the initial study.

Let’s take an example that might be more realistic in your world. (Unless you have a problem with intrusive thoughts about white bears.)

Let’s say you’re really worried about paying your bills each month. As it gets closer to time to pay the bills, you think about them more often so you try to put that thought out of your mind and think about something else.

What happens?

You think about your bills constantly. And your worry and discomfort increase because you’re experiencing the rebound effect of trying to stuff them down.

What might work better?

Expressing your thoughts and your worry about your bills. You can do this with a trusted friend or your spouse, you can journal about it, or you can even just talk aloud to yourself about it.

Any way that works for you to express your thought will help reduce the frequency and the impact of it.

2. Accepting your thoughts.

Some research is demonstrating that using acceptance-based techniques can help to decrease your distress over those thoughts that keep on intruding inside your head. Not the frequency of the thoughts, but the bad feelings that come along with them.

So, rather than thinking, “I am so tired of these thoughts! I just can’t stand them anymore!” you might think, “There’s that thought about my bills again. Yep, it’s coming up a lot so I guess I must be worried about it.”

Notice how, in the second line of thinking, you aren’t judging your thoughts like you were in the first line. You’re just noticing them and accepting that they are there.

We’ve talked before how simply noticing your thoughts can help you feel better than placing a judgment on them.

Next time you find yourself trying to make something go away by just not thinking about it, catch yourself and allow it to come up without judgment.


Just don’t think about a white bear . . .


Here’s your one thing from this post: Express, don’t suppress!


Do you ever find yourself trying to suppress your thoughts? Does it work for you? Let me know in the comments below.

Did you like this article? Please click the Facebook ‘like’ button! (Tweeting is great, too!)

Marcks, B.A. & Woods, D.W. (2005). A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance-based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: a controlled evaluation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 433-445.

Roemer, L. & Borkovec, T.D. (19940. Effects of Suppressing Thoughts About Emotional Material.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology.103(3), 467-474.

Wegner, D.M. (1987). Paradoxical Effects of Thougt Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53, 5-13.



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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.