The common belief that suppressing negative thoughts is bad for your mental health could be wrong, according to a new study.
Researchers asked volunteers to block negative thoughts and found their mental health improved and the thoughts became less vivid.
Professor Michael Anderson, from Cambridge University, said clinical treatment has accepted the idea that suppressing thoughts actually leads to them becoming more pervasive.
“The whole point of psychotherapy is to dredge up these thoughts so one can deal with them and rob them of their power,” he said.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, he decided to interrogate this idea to see if he could help people through the pandemic.
Working with Dr Zulkayda Mamat at the Medical Research Council (MRC) cognition and brain sciences unit, they recruited 120 people across 16 countries to test whether it might be possible – and beneficial – for people to practice suppressing their fearful thoughts.
Each participant was asked to think of a number of scenarios that could happen in the next two years – 20 negative fears, 20 positive hopes and 36 mundane and neutral events.
The fears had to be current worries that had repeatedly intruded in their thoughts.
For each scenario, they provided a cue word that would remind them of the scenario and a single-word detail.
Half of the participants were told to stare at one of their negative words for a few seconds and acknowledge the fear, but then block any other thoughts.
The other half participants were given the same assignment, only with their neutral words. The exercise was repeated 12 times per day for three days.
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At the end of the experiment, the group that suppressed negative thoughts reported that those fears were less vivid and their mental health had improved compared with the group that suppressed neutral thoughts.
The results held true three months after the experiment ended.
“What we found runs counter to the accepted narrative,” said Professor Anderson.
“Although more work will be needed to confirm the findings, it seems like it is possible and could even be potentially beneficial to actively suppress our fearful thoughts.”