Suppress Negative Thoughts to Improve Mental Health, Study Says

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Sept. 21, 2023 – A new study suggests that suppressing negative thoughts may improve people’s mental health. 

The finding offers an alternative to traditional therapy techniques that encourage people to face their fears. It also rebuts a commonly held belief that suppression of negative thoughts could harm people.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge asked 61 people to list future events that currently concerned them, and a comparison group of 59 people to list future events that they felt neutral about. In an activity called “suppression training,” they were taught to identify thoughts of the future events and how to stop themselves from imagining those things. Training occurred over the course of three one-on-one video sessions.

Those who suppressed negative thoughts reported improved mental health, including people with signs of anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder, according to results published this week in the journal Science Advances

The authors chose to do the study after seeing the rise of mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that a standard approach to treating distressing, intrusive thoughts is for people “to avoid suppressing their thoughts because intrusions might rebound in intensity and frequency, worsening the disorders.”

Three months after the training, most of the people in the study reported that their suppressed fears were less vivid and caused less anxiety, resulting in reduced overall anxiety, fewer negative emotions, and reduced depression.

They had not been instructed during those 3 months to use the thought suppression techniques they had learned. Nevertheless, during the 3 months between training and the follow-up, 82% of those who took part in the research reported using the skills for the fears they practiced on during training, and 80% said they used the skills with new fears.

When the researchers specifically analyzed a smaller group of people with signs of clinical posttraumatic stress disorder, they found that group also benefitted from suppressing negative thoughts and the resulting mental health benefits persisted for 3 months. The group with PTSD suppressed the fears they practiced on during training at a similar rate to the overall group (81%), but 100% of those in the PTSD group said they used the skills when facing new fears.

“I didn’t have a single participant who told me ‘Oh, I feel bad’ or ‘This was useless.’ I didn't prompt them or ask ‘Did you find this helpful?’ They were just automatically telling me how helpful they found it,” researcher Zulkayda Mamat, PhD, said in a news release, saying that one person noted how isolated she felt during the pandemic. “She said this study had come exactly at the time she needed it because she was having all these negative thoughts, all these worries and anxiety about the future, and this really, really helped her.”