This Isn't What I Expected

Notes on healing postpartum depression

Get OUT of My Head: Does Thought Suppression Work?

The paradox of thought suppression.

Scary, unwanted negative thoughts. Our instinct is often to push them out of our head. Or pretend they aren't there. Thought suppression refers to the deliberate act of trying to force the unwanted information out of your awareness.

Remember the old brain teaser: For the next two minutes, think about anything you want, but you cannot think about pink elephants.  Think about whatever you want, but you must not think about pink elephants!  Of course, everyone reports seeing one or more big pink elephants in their mind's eye immediately after being told to suppress that image. 

Over 20 years ago, a study was carried out to test the prediction that a person's attempt to suppress thoughts can actually result in preoccupation with that thought, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as a rebound effect (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987).  In this experiment, participants were asked to speak spontaneously for five minutes straight, talking about anything and everything.  Next, they were again asked to verbalize every thing that came to mind, but this time they were told not to think about a white bear.  They were instructed to ring a bell each time they said or thought "white bear."   Interestingly, when compared to a group that was told to think about white bears, the group that was asked to suppress white bear thoughts actually had significantly more thoughts on this topic.  The researchers concluded that attempts at thought suppression had a paradoxical effect, suggesting that suppression might actually produce the very thought it is intended to stifle.  Subsequent research has supported this notion and confirms repeated failure by people to successfully suppress unwanted thoughts (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).  In other words, thought suppression just does not work.  

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This work has strong implications with regard to thought control as a self-help strategy for postpartum women with scary thoughts. Most postpartum women will admit that their initial instinct is to suppress the thought; quite simply, they want to make the bad thought go away by trying not to think about it. The notion that it is unhealthy, and even dangerous, to stifle emotions and bottle them up inside is not a new one.  But the message here is an important one - the instinctive response to control a scary thought by holding it in or concealing it typically backfires and makes things feel worse. Persistence creates resistance; the more you try to push thoughts out, the bigger they get.

This paradox was described in Therapy and the Postpartum Woman (Kleiman, 2008) using the metaphor of a filled water balloon.  Imagine trying to control a wobbly water balloon resting precariously in the palm of your hand. One's instinct is often to grab it as it rolls from side to side. But in doing so, one finds that the overstuffed balloon either pops out of the gripping fingers and onto the floor, or it bursts right within her grasp into a sopping mess.  Either way, control has been lost. The only way to gain control over an unsteady water balloon is to release one's fingers, slowly open the hand, and let go of the tight grip. This exercise demonstrates the paradox of control.  Letting go when one is overwhelmed and frightened is difficult and can feel counterproductive, but it works.  

How does one let go?

It is a concept that attracts a great deal of attention in pop psychology circles-letting go of your past, letting go of grudges, letting go of clutter, letting go of your emancipating children, letting go of a lost love. The list is endless. The concept of letting go generally refers to the combination of two things: (a) accepting the presence of some current (perhaps painful) state, and (b) forgiving or embracing one's own accountability and vulnerability within that state.  Think of it like this-there is something happening that causes stress (i.e., children leaving for college).  In response to this event, there is either something or nothing one can do.  If something should or can be done to relieve that stress, action needs to take place, (i.e. taking an evening class or reconnecting with friends).  However, if action would not be helpful, then one needs to learn to adapt to this new state of being (i.e., empty nest).  This process of learning to let go needs to take place when there is no direct action necessary, but relief from emotional distress is sought.  Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing of all to do. 

Ironically, the concept of doing nothing or taking no action with regard to emotional adjustment is one that requires much work.  It necessitates a desire to transcend the mired state of current discomfort and let go in order to move forward.  Spiritual teacher and author Eckhard Tolle (1999) uses a simple metaphor that helps elucidate this complicated process.  He responds to a question he is frequently asked:

"How do we drop negativity?  By dropping it.  How do you drop a piece of hot coal you are holding in your hand?  How do you drop some heavy and useless baggage that you are carrying?  By recognizing that you don't want to suffer or carry the burden anymore and then letting go of it." (Tolle, 1999, p. 79)

This is an example of how simple something so complicated can be.  I find the use of this image most helpful when used in conjunction with a sound bite and gesture.  Vocalizing the words, hot coal, coinciding with a hand motion from a closed fist to an open one, can signal the brain that it should "let go."  Believe it our not, our brains learn to respond appropriately when we train them in this way.  Imagine the hot coal burning the palm of your hand.  Think of the pain that a scary thought can carry with it.  Look at your hand, and feel the burn of that thought and drop it.  Next time the scary thought pops into your head, say, hot coal, pop open your hand, and let go. 

Adapted from Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts (Routledge 2010) by Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel

copyright 2011 Karen Kleiman

photo credit

Karen Kleiman is founder and director of The Postpartum Stress Center, a treatment and training center for prenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

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