By John Salak –
Maybe it is better to go with gut instinct and simply suppress negative emotions, countering decades of psychological wisdom that warns bottling up these feelings is bad for a person’s mental well-being.
Scientists at Britain’s University of Cambridge believe this might be the case after working with 120 volunteers worldwide to suppress thoughts about negative events that worried them. The researchers found that not only did these thoughts become less vivid, but the participants’ mental health also improved significantly.
“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 well-being perniciously,” said Professor Michael Anderson.
“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’.”
The “don’t suppress” movement Anderson flagged has become dogma in the clinical treatment realm, as proponents claim thought avoidance is a poor way to cope with anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Healthline.com notes, for example, that refusing to deal with emotions may even create more problems. “Repressed emotions, on the other hand, don’t get a chance to be processed. But that doesn’t mean they simply disappear. Instead, they might show up as a range of psychological or physical symptoms,” it reported.
A 2023 study supports Healthline’s assertion. This research maintains that people who habitually judge negative feelings—such as sadness, fear and anger—as bad or inappropriate have more anxiety and depression symptoms and feel less satisfied with their lives than people who generally perceive their negative emotions in a positive or neutral light. This ultimately indicates that people fare better when they accept their unpleasant emotions as appropriate and healthy, rather than try to fight or suppress them.
“Many of us have this implicit belief that emotions themselves are bad, they’re going to do something bad to us,” said the Cambridge study’s co-author Iris Mauss, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Most of the time, however, “emotions don’t do harmful things,” she added.
The mental stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may have turned this thinking on its head. Researchers, like Cambridge’s Anderson, responded to the mental health crisis by working to find a way to help people better manage the related stress. Anderson was particularly interested in applying a brain mechanism known as inhibitory control, which is the ability to override reflexive responses. His aim was to judge whether it could be applied to memory retrieval, which would in effect stop the retrieval of negative thoughts when confronted with potent reminders to them.
Along with colleague Dr. Zulkayda Mamat, Anderson accomplished this by recruiting 120 people across 16 countries to test whether it might in fact be possible, and perhaps beneficial, for people to practice suppressing their fearful thoughts.
Each volunteer was asked to think of a number of scenarios that might occur in their lives over the next two years. These included 20 negative fears and worries, 20 positive hopes and dreams, and 36 routine and mundane neutral events. Each event had to be specific to the participant and something they had vividly imagined occurring. They also provided a cue word, which was an obvious reminder that could be used to evoke the event during training. They also offered up a key detail, a single word expressing a central event detail.
Participants were asked to rate each event on a number of 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.
The subjects were then put through a training session during which they were taught how to better block events. Three days later and again three months later, participants were once again asked to rate each event on vividness, level of anxiety and emotional intensity. They also completed questionnaires to assess changes in depression, anxiety, worry, affect and well-being.
“It was very clear that those events that participants practiced suppressing were less vivid, less emotionally anxiety-inducing, than the other events and that overall, participants improved in terms of their mental health. But we saw the biggest effect among those participants who were given practice at suppressing fearful, rather than neutral, thoughts,” Mamat said.
Suppressing thoughts even improved mental health amongst participants with likely post-traumatic stress disorder. Among these participants, their negative mental health indices scores fell on average by 16 percent, compared to a 5 percent decline for similar participants suppressing neutral events.
The research team laid out its marker ultimately based on their results. “In general, people with worse mental health symptoms at the outset of the study improved more after suppression training, but only if they suppressed their fears,” they reported. “This finding directly contradicts the notion that suppression is a maladaptive coping process.”
“What we found runs counter to the accepted narrative,” Anderson added. “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.”