Anyone who’s ever tried to manage an emotion or thought will have attempted to simply not think about it. But somehow, that never seems to work out the way it should! Even if it seems to have positive effects at first, that suppression always comes back to bite you. It could be minutes, hours, or days later, but sometimes the effects are more long-term.
All of those thoughts stewing in your head can crowd your brain. You might think you’re doing your mental health a favor by shoving your negative feelings aside. But you’re not, and if anything, you’re likely just exacerbating them to extreme levels. Don’t believe us? Here are six reasons why thought suppression harms your mental health.
1. Suppression Increases Pain
The emotions that you feel in life can be painful, especially when they involve negative thoughts. It’s only natural for human beings to try and avoid this pain by suppressing it. But according to studies, such suppression only increases the experience of this pain. In short:
- When you experience pain, trying not to think about it makes you more likely to try and escape it.
- Suppressing feelings of pain can cause increased feelings of distress, including physical symptoms in blood pressure and heart rate.
- When you use coping techniques or simple acceptance, you’re able to withstand more pain for a longer period of time.
The fact is that life is full of negative events and potential suffering! You’ll experience pain no matter how much you try to avoid it. Learning to accept that pain is part of your living experience can be central to preserving emotional health.
If you want to build resilience to various forms of physical and mental pain, work with that suffering. Understanding that this is where you are and learning to cope with it is better than pretending you’re not there at all. After all, you can’t deal with something you refuse to look at.
2. Suppression Rebounds Thoughts
Have you ever tried to make yourself not think about something? As it turns out, the second you tell yourself “Don’t think about that”, your brain immediately thinks about it! That’s how useless thought suppression is, and there’s a pretty famous study about it. It’s commonly referred to as the White Bear study. In the study:
- Half of the participants were asked not to think about a white bear for five minutes. When they thought about the bear, they had to ring a bell. The other half was a control group.
- All participants were then asked to think about a white bear for five minutes. When they thought about the bear, they had to ring a bell.
- Throughout the process, all participants had to vocalize their thoughts.
- While trying not to think about the bear, participants still thought of it at least once per minute.
- Participants who tried to suppress their thoughts at first ended up ringing the bell twice as much as the control group.
This study makes us see just how counterproductive thought suppression is. The more you try not to think about something, the more powerful it becomes later. It’s like the thought fights back! This is commonly known as “thought rebound”, which means everything you try to push away just bounces back to you like a boomerang.
When applied to white bears, this effect of suppression just seems amusing. But what happens when it’s applied to feelings and more serious thoughts? What about negative thoughts that you attempt to suppress? This is a serious and concerning problem! It’s easy to see how your mental and emotional health can be harmed through thought suppression when you look at these facts.
Worse still, this effect still occurs even when the suppression isn’t as directly instructed. When you’re encouraged not to think of something via manipulation, studies show the same rebound effect still occurs. As such, even small methods of suppression can be harmful and deplete your positive thoughts!
3. Suppression Affects Your Sleep Negatively
Have you ever noticed that negative thoughts tend to reign supreme when you want to sleep? It’s in the dark, wee hours of the morning that your mind scrambles and you toss and turn. And, according to research, the more you try to suppress your thoughts, the harder it’ll be to sleep!
As it turns out, the more desperately you try to sleep, the harder it’ll be for you to actually do that. You’d actually have a better chance of falling asleep if you listen to music that’s loud and stressful! So you should certainly be approaching bedtime with a more relaxed, spontaneous perspective. If you don’t care if you sleep or not and just let things happen, you’ll be able to drift off despite your feelings.
But that’s not all that suppression effects. It can also infiltrate your dreams! Remember the white bear rebound of thoughts? Sometimes, that rebound can sneak up on you in your dreams. Those nightmares you’ve been having can be a result of the things you don’t want to think about. That’s supported by studies!
The good news is that dreams can be useful in dissecting your suppressed thoughts. Lots of people suppress things subconsciously and your nightmares can be an informant of those unintentional feelings. Keeping a dream journal to log what you experience at night can be beneficial to unpacking more complex and buried suppressed thoughts.
4. Suppressing Emotions Preserves Them
When you suppress how you feel, what you’re really doing is bottling them up. And what happens to things that you bottle? Well, they’re preserved. Studies show that trying to suppress thoughts and emotions can allow them to fester. This makes them stronger, more powerful, and much more detrimental to mental health. You can put yourself at risk of depression and anxiety when you continually bottle everything up.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should constantly complain about every single minor gripe you have. You still need to work on reframing your mindset to be full of gratitude and positive thoughts. But when you do feel sad, it’s okay to let those feelings out. Cry, rant to a good listener, write in a journal, or express yourself through creativity. You’ll be better off for it!
The trick is emotional acceptance instead of suppression. This means that, when you consider your emotions, you have to welcome them and validate them, even if you don’t dwell on them. As such, you should:
- Be kind to yourself without passing judgment or critiquing yourself for your emotions.
- Take the time to sit with and fully experience your feelings without intellectualizing or evaluating them.
- View your emotions through a realistic lens, so you don’t distort or constrict them to be different.
- Appreciate both the negative and positive aspects of various emotions and experiences.
- Not focus on getting rid of your emotions, instead allowing them to naturally come, go, and pass.
5. Suppression Decreases Awareness Of Action
Managing mental health well can often be about developing a better awareness of yourself, your actions, and your roots. In other words, if you want to increase positive thoughts, you have to be more in tune with yourself. That’s why mindfulness is so effective for mental health!