If you struggle with depression, it can be a challenge to imagine feeling better even for a minute. Yet a new study by scientists at the University of Cambridge found that there is a technique which consistently helps people combat their feelings of depression. Even three months after the 16 country-spanning experiment had ended, these patients often reported that their depression symptoms remained less than they had been before.
“Clinical psychology has often conflated avoidance with thought suppression.”
This technique was simply training themselves to effectively suppress their negative thoughts and emotions — even though bottling up one’s the inner darkness goes against conventional wisdom, which holds doing so worsens your mental health.
Published in the peer reviewed journal Science Advances, the study includes research on 120 adults who underwent three days of online training to learn how to suppress thoughts they described as fearful, as well as some thoughts which were neutral.
Instead of an increase of patients experiencing anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression, the opposite occurred: They felt better. “Suppression reduced memory for suppressed fears and rendered them less vivid and anxiety provoking,” the authors found. “After training, participants reported less anxiety, negative affect, and depression with the latter benefit persisting at 3 months.”
Professor Michael Anderson, the corresponding author of the study and senior scientist and program leader at the University of Cambridge’s MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, explained in an email that the traditional alternative for treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression is to try to put positive images in one’s head. Suppressing the negative thoughts and emotions, by contrast, is viewed as unhealthy, an invitation to having those bad ideas fester in the psyche until they are uncontrollably released later.
“Clinical psychology has urged us to not suppress our thoughts,” Anderson explained. “Freud said that this would simply push them into the unconscious, where they will come back to bite us and make us mentally ill. Modern clinicians often urge patients to not suppress their thoughts due to the widespread (and incorrect) belief that this will only make them come back more forcefully. Indeed, thought avoidance is labeled a maladaptive coping strategy, and national guidelines often instruct clinicians to try to mitigate it.”
Anderson points to the neurology of the brain itself for proof that these assumptions are in error.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter Lab Notes.
“Modern clinicians often urge patients to not suppress their thoughts due to the widespread (and incorrect) belief that this will only make them come back more forcefully.”
“Over the last two decades, research in cognitive neuroscience has established very clearly that people can engage a mechanism known as inhibitory control (supported by the prefrontal cortex) to suppress memory retrieval, and disrupted intrusive thoughts and memories,” Anderson pointed out, adding that his own group has engaged in this work since 2001.
“Nobody has ever experimentally tested whether training people to suppress distressing thoughts had an effect on mental health,” Anderson said. “This is what we have done. It is the first causal, experimental test, showing that when you randomly assign people to suppress their fear, or to instead suppress neutral events.”
Having some patients learn to suppress neutral thoughts was important as a control because it made sure that there were people who received the same training and social interactions with the experimenter. “The former group shows significant and durable mental health improvement (and a 57% decline in the chances of worsening depression, for example), whereas suppressing neutral events does nothing.”
As Anderson describes it, thought suppression is a perfectly healthy and legitimate way of coping with negative emotions and ideas. Instead of trying to curb patients’ understandable and natural instincts to suppress their thoughts, mental health professionals should allow them to explore what works best for alleviating their symptoms.
“Our data shows that when people are encouraged to consistently confront reminders to their fears and negative thoughts and retrain their mind to ‘not go there’ by suppressing thought and imagery are in fact much happier and healthier in the end, with durably reduced depression and worry— especially if they started off with depression, anxiety or PTSD,” Anderson pointed out. “This is the opposite of what is believed clinically at present. So, we believe the advice is simply incorrect and deprives patients of an incredibly valuable tool to improve their mental health.”
This is not to say that the researchers believe patients should entirely avoid their negative thoughts. “Avoidance,” or the practice of a person trying to never encounter reminders of things at all, deprives individuals of important chances for self-adjustment. At the same time, “the problem is that clinical psychology has often conflated avoidance with thought suppression,” Anderson said. “But thought suppression, as we have trained it forces people to confront their reminders, and then learn to simply not get carried away.”
Yet if the best test of a method’s success is that it gets widely used, then the thought suppression techniques used during Anderson’s experiment abundantly succeeded.
“Despite the fact that we didn’t tell them to suppress their thoughts over the 3 month interval until our followup, more than 80% of our participants continued to do so,” Anderson told Salon. “That is amazing buy-in — which means that people were pretty convinced by the training.”