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What Is Thought Suppression?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Thought suppression is the attempt to control or dismiss intrusive thoughts that disturb a patient or make it difficult to focus on other tasks. A key study on this topic conducted in the 1980s by David Schneider and Daniel Wegner suggested that this technique is actually not effective and can be counterproductive in treatment. Some practitioners still promote it and teach their patients how to use it, with variable results. Patients with an interest in it can discuss it with their care providers and receive advice and recommendations.

Patients with anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health conditions where intrusive thoughts can become overwhelming may use thought suppression in their treatment. The technique involves a conscious effort to ignore or let go of thoughts. The patient may also try to control and redirect unpleasant thoughts to refocus the anxiety and tension associated with the thought onto another topic.

Research on thought suppression shows that it can actually have the opposite effect. Rather than make the patient think less about a topic, it may increase the thoughts and intensify them. Schneider and Wegner asked their subjects not to think of a white bear and found that in the group asked to suppress their thoughts, this subject came up more frequently. In fact, subjects asked not to think about bears thought of them more than the group that was asked to think about them.

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Some outliers may find thought suppression helpful, especially when they combine it with other forms of therapy. Meditation and other techniques may help patients gain greater control of their thoughts. This can allow them to redirect or suppress thoughts. Some care providers focus on having their patients release thoughts, rather than trying to suppress them, through exercises to help them quickly work through the emotion and move past it.

Psychiatric treatment can be highly variable and outcomes are not guaranteed. Patients may respond very differently to the same treatment from the same care provider even though their cases appear to be more or less identical. It is important for patients to be aware of this, as a failure of treatment is not indicative of a personal failure. Friends and family may also want to consider this when asking about treatments. A patient may not feel comfortable discussing treatments at all, or could have tried a treatment like thought suppression without success and may not want to talk about it.

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