A fairly widespread belief that has its roots in Freud’s theories indicates that if we repress the negative thoughts These will remain anchored in our unconscious and will harm our emotional well-being and our behavior. However, now a new study carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge denies this, and reveals that at eliminating them improves mental health.
To reach this conclusion, scientists from the Brain Sciences and Cognition Unit of the Medical Research Council (MRC) trained 120 volunteers from around the world to be able to suppress thoughts about negative events that worried them, and discovered that These lost relevance and, at the same time, the mental health of the participants improved.
“We are all familiar with the Freudian idea that if we suppress our feelings or thoughts, these thoughts remain in our unconscious, perniciously influencing our behavior and well-being,” explained the Professor Michael Andersonwho adds that “the The goal of psychotherapy is to bring these thoughts to light. to be able to deal with them and steal their power. In more recent years, we have been told that suppressing thoughts is inherently ineffective and actually causes people to think more about the thought; It’s the classic idea of ’Don’t think about a pink elephant.'”
“The events that participants practiced repressing were less vivid and caused less emotional anxiety, and participants improved in terms of their mental health.”
According to Anderson, these ideas have been implemented in clinical treatment and are considered the thought avoidance as an important maladaptive coping behavior that must be eliminated and overcome in depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example.
A strategy to deal with stressful situations like the pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Professor Anderson decided to find out how his own research could be used to help people overcome the pandemic. His interest was in a brain mechanism known as inhibitory control (the ability to override our reflective responses) and how it might apply to memory retrieval, especially stop the recovery of negative thoughts when faced with powerful reminders of them.
The Dra. Zulkayda Mamatwho was then a PhD student in Professor Anderson’s laboratory and at Trinity College, Cambridge, believed that the inhibitory control was essential to overcome trauma in the experiences that she and other known people had suffered. She wanted to find out if this was an innate ability or something that is learned and therefore can be taught.
The two researchers recruited 120 people in 16 countries to see if it was possible (and beneficial) for people to practice suppressing their fearful thoughts. In the study, each participant was asked to think about a series of situations that might occur in their lives over the next two years: 20 negative “fears and worries” that they feared might happen, 20 positive “hopes and dreams,” and 36 neutral routine and mundane events. The fears had to be current concerns that had entered his thoughts repeatedly.
Each event had to be specific to them and something they had vividly imagined happening. For each scenario, they had to provide a key word (an obvious reminder that could be used to evoke the event during training) and a key detail (a single word that expressed a central detail of the event). For example:
Participants were asked to rate each event based on certain factors: intensity, probability of occurrence, distance in the future, level of anxiety about the event (or level of joy for positive events), frequency of thinking, degree of worry current, duration of the event, term of impact, and emotional intensity. Participants also answered questionnaires to assess their mental health.
Then, via Zoom, Dr. Mamat led each participant in a 20-minute training, which included 12 repetitions of ‘No-imagine’ and 12 ‘Imagine’ events, each day for three days.
For the ‘No-imagine’ trials, participants were given one of their target words and asked to first recognize the event in their mind. Then, while continuing to look directly at the reminder cue, they were asked to stop thinking about the event; They should not try to imagine the event itself, nor use distracting thoughts to escape, but instead should try to block any image or thought that the reminder might evoke. For this part of the trial, one group of participants was given their negative events to suppress and the other their neutral ones.
For the ‘Imagine’ trials, participants were given a cue word and asked to imagine the event as vividly as possible, imagining what the event would be like and how they would feel. For ethical reasons, no participant was given a negative event to imagine, but only a positive or neutral one.
This technique also benefited people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the end of the third day and again three months later, participants were again asked to rate each event according to its intensity, level of anxiety, emotional intensity, etc., and completed questionnaires to assess changes in depression, anxiety, worry. , affect, and well-being, which are key aspects of mental health.
Dr Mamat said: “It was very clear that the events that the participants practiced suppressing were less vivid, caused less emotional anxiety than the other events and that overall, the participants improved in terms of their mental health. “But we saw the largest effect among participants who were given practice suppressing fearful thoughts, rather than neutral ones.”
After training – both immediately and after three months – participants reported that the repressed events were less vivid and frightening and also reported that they thought less about these events. Their findings have been published in Science Advances.
Thought suppression also improved mental health among participants with probable post-traumatic stress disorder, as in those with this condition who suppressed negative thoughts the Negative mental health index scores decreased by an average of 16% (compared to a 5% drop for similar participants who suppressed neutral events), while positive mental health index scores increased by almost 10% (compared to a 1% drop in the second group).
Overall, people with worse mental health symptoms at the start of the study improved more after suppression training, but only if they suppressed their fears. This finding directly contradicts the notion that suppression is a maladaptive coping process. “What we found goes against the accepted narrative,” says Professor Anderson. “Although more work will be needed to confirm the findings, it appears that “It is possible, and could even be potentially beneficial, to actively suppress our fearful thoughts.”.
Maria Cantero-Garcia, a contracted professor with a PhD in Psychology from the Universidad a Distancia de Madrid (UDIMA), considers that the study is “solid in terms of quality and data support”, as she declared to SMC Spain, although she points out some limitations because, she says, “it may It does not address all situations and nuances, and its findings may not apply uniformly to all individuals or therapeutic contexts. Additionally, more research is needed to fully understand the implications of these results.”
“In terms of the impact on people following a psychotherapy process, this study could have positive perspectives by providing therapists with a more balanced understanding of the suppression of negative thoughts. Could offer additional tools to help people deal with their thoughts effectively, always taking into account the circumstances and context. However, it is essential that therapists continue to evaluate each situation individually and consider the limitations and complexity of this issue in their clinical practice,” the expert concludes.