“Just don’t think about it”-- why that never works and what to do instead / by Gia & Danielle

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Photo Credit: Unsplash

By Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

When I was a little girl, my grandpa used to tell this joke that goes: “A man went to the doctor. He said ‘Doc, every time I do this [mimes lifting his arm], it hurts.” The doctor says to him ‘So don’t do that.’” It wasn’t a terribly funny joke, but my grandpa loved it. Funniness aside, it illustrates an important point-- it’s absurd to try to live your life not lifting your arm just because it hurts when you do. Most of us would agree that’s not a workable strategy. And yet, many of us try to use that same unworkable strategy when it comes to our own minds. When we have thoughts that are painful, like memories of a hurtful breakup, or scary, like worries about an upcoming performance evaluation at work, we often try to just not think about those things anymore. You may have tried this strategy yourself. If you have, I can pretty much guarantee it didn’t work. Read on for the science behind why thought suppression is ineffective and what to do instead.

The first and most famous study of thought suppression was done by Daniel Wegner and his colleagues in 1987.¹⁹ When participants came into the lab, they participated in two stream-of-consciousness reporting periods, meaning that for five minutes they said whatever came into their minds. Half of the participants were told that whatever they did, they should not think about a white bear. NOT AT ALL! That might sound easy. You probably haven’t thought about white bears all day today. But go ahead and try-- set a timer for two minutes and think about whatever you want, just not a white bear. I’ll wait……. How did it go? If you’re like the subjects in the study, you thought about a white bear a lot, an average of more than once per minute. They thought about it much more than participants in a control group that were told to express thoughts of a white bear, and they kept thinking about it more even when they were later told they could start thinking about a white bear again. 

Basically, trying not to think about something has a paradoxical effect that makes us think about that thing MORE.

Psychologists believe that thought suppression fails because it causes a preoccupation with the thought we’re trying to avoid.²⁰ You can imagine an unconscious mental radar that’s constantly scanning to check “Am I thinking of a white bear?”. Studies have shown that trying to use thought suppression to control mood actually leads to worse mood and that people who chronically try to suppress their emotions have worse physical health indicators like elevated blood pressure.²²

So what should we do instead with those annoying, unwanted thoughts? First, say them out loud and name the emotion that comes along with them. Studies show that naming emotions can make those emotions less powerful over time.²³ Alternatively, you can try a technique called cognitive defusion, where you notice that your thoughts are just that-- thoughts. You don’t have to be afraid of them. In fact, sometimes our thoughts are ridiculous. You can try saying “My mind is giving me the thought that maybe my boss is going to say I’ve been failing. That’s the kind of thought my mind usually gives me when I have a performance review” and move on. Learning to live with your thoughts, even the scary or painful ones, is a much better choice than staying in the unsuccessful struggle to push your thoughts from your mind.

[19] Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987
[20] Wegner, 1992, 1994, 1997
[21] Wegner et al., 1993
[22] Thomas, 1997
[23] Kircanski, Lieberman & Craske, 2012