Ever since Sigmund Freud introduced psychoanalysis in the 1890’s, it’s been the traditional belief that repression is bad, and talking about what bothers us is the best way to deal with our anxieties and fears.
The opposite tactic may also be effective, a new study suggests. Suppressing, rather than talking about our fearful thoughts, can actually benefit our mental health and wellbeing.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge, Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Science Unit, trained 120 volunteers from 16 countries worldwide to suppress their thoughts about a negative event that worried them. In doing so, not only did the painful events become less vivid, but the participants overall mental health improved.
Here’s how the study worked: The participants were each asked to list 20 fears about things that might happen in the future. In addition, they were asked to include 36 neutral events such as a visit to the eye doctor.
“I certainly don’t think that there’s anything wrong with processing significant things in our lives. But for the majority of negative thoughts that we have, I’m not sure that recipe fits the bill.”
“The fears couldn’t be generic, like ‘I’m worried that aliens are going to land on Earth.’ They’re things that are going through your mind recurrently that cause distress,” explained Michael Anderson, a scientist at MRC’s Cognition and Brain Science Unit and co-author of the study.
The next step was for the participants to come up with a word that reminded them of the type of event. For example, if their fear was that their parent would get severely sick with COVID, the word might be “hospital.”
Half of the people in the study were instructed to stare at one of their negative words for a few seconds without letting their minds wander into more distressing thoughts. The other half were given the same prompt, only with their neutral words. “You’re told: If something does pop into mind, even briefly, push it out,” Anderson explained. “Moreover, don’t distract yourself. Don’t think about lunch.”
Over the course of three days, the exercise was repeated 12 times. At the end of the experiment, those participants who blocked out negative thoughts reported their fears were less vivid and their mental health had improved when compared to the groups who were told to suppress neutral thoughts.
- Participants who reported high levels of anxiety to start with saw their self-reported worries decline, on average, by 44 percent.
- People in the study who had reported suffering from post-traumatic stress or PTSD,had their overall negative mental health (measured as a combination of self-reported anxiety, depression and worry) fall by an average of 16 percent, while their positive mental health increased by nearly 10 percent.
What’s more, the technique had staying power. Eighty percent of the participants indicated that they were effectively using the negative thought suppression technique three months after the experiment had ended as a way to control their fears. “Once you teach people what they need to do, I think they can do it on their own,” Anderson agreed.
Does this mean we should always stay silent when something is bothering us? Anderson is clear that his study shouldn’t be taken to mean that we can’t benefit from talking about our fears.
People who blocked out negative thoughts reported their fears were less vivid and their mental health had improved compared to the groups who were told to suppress neutral thoughts.
“I certainly don’t think that there’s anything wrong with processing significant things in our lives,” he said. “But for the majority of negative thoughts that we have, I’m not sure that recipe fits the bill.”
The study is published in Science Advances.