We often hear that trying to push away our negative thoughts can actually make things worse. This popular belief has even been backed by therapy guidelines that advise against it.
However, a fresh study from the University of Cambridge is now challenging this view. It turns out, suppressing your fears and worries could be good for your mental health.
When Tradition Meets New Research
The usual thinking in mental health care comes from old theories, mainly from Sigmund Freud, who believed that when you suppress thoughts, they don’t really go away.
Instead, they hang out in the “back of your mind,” influencing your feelings and actions in harmful ways. More recently, the argument was that trying not to think about something only makes you think about it more.
Imagine being told not to think about a pink elephant—you’d probably start thinking about it immediately, right?
Based on such theories, mental health experts have long considered thought suppression as a “no-no” when treating conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
But Professor Michael Anderson and Dr. Zulkayda Mamat from the University of Cambridge decided to put this belief to the test.
With the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting millions, they wanted to find new ways to help people cope better.
What Did They Actually Do?
The researchers gathered 120 volunteers from around the globe to participate in a simple experiment conducted over video calls.
Each volunteer was asked to think about 20 good things, 20 bad things, and 36 neutral things that could happen to them in the next two years.
The list could include things like going to a wedding, or being worried about a loved one getting sick. They had to rate how often they thought about these things and how the thoughts made them feel.
For the next three days, they were trained to either focus on these thoughts or try to suppress them.
The trick was, they couldn’t distract themselves with other thoughts; they had to actively try not to think about the topic at hand. For ethical reasons, nobody was asked to focus on negative thoughts.
After the training, and again three months later, the volunteers took a mental health survey. They were also asked how vividly they remembered their positive and negative thoughts, and how often these thoughts came to mind.
The Surprising Results
The outcomes were eye-opening. People who practiced pushing away their fears found that those fears started to lose their power. They didn’t think about them as much, and when they did, the thoughts were less vivid and scary. This was especially true for participants who were already struggling with mental health issues like depression or post-traumatic stress.
Even more surprising was that the positive effects stuck around. When checked three months later, those who continued to practice the technique were still doing better mentally.
“We didn’t find a single person who said, ‘This made me feel worse,'” said Dr. Mamat, which makes this research quite promising.
So, what does all this mean? Well, it’s shaking up some pretty old beliefs about mental health care.
And while more research is needed, this could become a new tool in the mental health toolbox—something especially needed in these stressful times.
In a world where we’re all looking for ways to feel better, both mentally and emotionally, it’s heartening to know that scientists are challenging traditional beliefs and looking for new solutions.
So, the next time you find yourself wrestling with negative thoughts, remember—you might just have more control over them than you thought.
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For more information about health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and these antioxidants could help reduce the risk of dementia.
The research findings can be found in Science Advances.
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