Take a minute and try your best not to think about white bears. What you probably found was that you thought about white bears frequently over the course of the minute. Even worse, you’re now more likely to think about white bears in the future. This might be harmless enough when it comes to white bears, but what if you trying not to think about cigarettes or some other unwanted thought?
The paradoxical effects of thought suppression were first discovered in a 1987 study. The study asked participants not to think a white bear for 5 minutes and ring a bell every time they did. Afterwards, they were allowed to think about white bears for an additional 5 minutes. The researchers found that individuals who suppressed thoughts about a white bear subsequently thought more about white bears than those who were allowed to think about a white bear from the start (known as the rebound effect). These findings have also been confirmed in brain studies. These researchers found that the unwanted thought is more active during suppression itself (which other studies have also confirmed). They also found neurological evidence for the rebound effect.
Not surprisingly then, thought suppression has been shown to be a contributing factor in PTSD, OCD, depression, phobias and generalized anxiety disorder.
Why Does This Occur?
The predominant theory, called the ironic process theory, says that thought suppression happens via two mental processes. As the leading expert in the field described it,
The first is a conscious, effortful process aimed at creating the desired mental state. The person engaged in suppressing white bear thoughts, for example, might pursue the room or otherwise cast about for something—anything—that is not a white bear. Filling the mind with other things, after all, achieves “not thinking of a white bear…” Ironic process theory proposes that this second component of suppression is an ironic monitoring process, an unconscious search for the very mental state that is unwanted.
So, when you try to suppress a thought you constantly monitor yourself for that thought (thereby keeping it in mind) while you try to distract yourself with other thoughts.
Interestingly, the researchers in the white bear study discovered that participants tried to distract themselves by thinking about objects in the room, like a lamp. However, this could make the unwanted thought more likely to rebound as all of these objects become associated with the unwanted thought. Instead, the researchers found that instructing participants to focus on a red Volkswagen dampened the negative effects of distraction. So, stop trying to suppress thoughts. If an unwanted thought does arise though, shift your attention to a single abstract thought (like a red Volkswagen).
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