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Emotion Regulation

Suppression Can Be Good for Your Mental Health

Scary play can teach you how to handle difficult thoughts.

Key points

  • There is a widespread belief that suppressing difficult thoughts is bad.
  • When done effectively, suppression can be a useful tool for emotion regulation.
  • Engaging in scary play can help build effective suppression skills.
Hans-Jurger Mager/Unsplash
Hans-Jurger Mager/Unsplash

There’s a common belief that suppressing difficult thoughts is bad. Much of this stems from Sigmund Freud, who proposed that suppressed thoughts would continue to exist in the unconscious mind and show up later in an individual’s behaviors. Psychoanalysis is built largely on this presumption of repressed thoughts manifesting later in life through various psychopathologies.

It seems true that trying not to think about something can make it come to mind. Fyodor Dostoevsky noted this peculiar phenomenon in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, in which he stated, "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."

Dostoevsky’s observation inspired Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner to test the idea empirically. Wegner had participants verbalize a stream of consciousness—the random thoughts that pop up in your mind—for five minutes. Each participant did this exercise several times.

One group of participants was first asked to think of a white bear and then were told to verbalize their thoughts for five minutes (expression). If they thought about the bear during the five minutes, they were told to ring a bell. They were then asked to not think about a white bear and given the same instructions to verbalize thoughts for five minutes (suppression). The second group performed the same task in reverse order.

In the first minute of the study, everyone was thinking of that white bear and ringing the bell. After the first minute, intrusive white bear thoughts began to drop off, ending with about one ring per minute in the fifth minute (coinciding quite well with Dostoevsky’s “every minute” claim). The one group that kept thinking about the white bear was the group that was told to think about the white bear (expression) after first completing a round of not thinking about it (suppression).

Many reports of this study take the results as evidence that suppressing thoughts of the white bear in the initial round caused participants to “rebound” in the second expression round and obsess over thoughts of the white bear.

But is that really what was going on?

Those in the suppression-then-expression group performed as well as anyone else at not thinking about the white bear when they were instructed not to think about it (suppression round), and also performed well at thinking about the white bear when they were instructed to think about it (expression round). To me, it seems like they were pretty good at doing exactly as they were instructed!

Is Suppression Effective?

The idea that suppression is bad and ineffective persists despite mounting evidence that suppression works in reducing the chances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), decreasing anxiety about future events, preventing intrusive thoughts, and forgetting the suppressed content without it living in the unconscious mind.

Adding to this pile of evidence that suppression can be a good technique and does work, a recent paper provides direct evidence across 16 countries that suppression can improve mental health.

In the study, participants listed future events that they feared and attached a cue word to each one. For example, if a participant worried about a future pandemic, they would mention this fear and attach to it a single word, such as “pandemic.” For comparison, researchers also had participants do the same things for neutral events and positive/hopeful events.

Over the course of several days, each participant underwent suppression training sessions. Using a task called Imagine/No Imagine, researchers instructed participants to imagine their feared event for a few seconds vividly and then stop imagining it. It’s basically the game red light/green light but with your worst fears.

The researchers found that suppression training led to less vivid and less anxiety-provoking thoughts about fearful events; this was true at the end of the final training session and in a three-month follow-up examination. Participants also reported lower levels of overall anxiety, negative affect, and depression.

Suppression, it seems, works quite well when you’re good at it.

So, how do you get good at it?

Scary Play Might Help

I’ve argued before that scary play, such as engagement with horror movies, can be a great way for anxious people to learn important emotion regulation skills that help them deal with their anxiety.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, my colleagues and I conducted a study showing that horror fans had greater psychological resilience during the pandemic. Our explanation for the finding was that horror fans had spent a lot of time engaging in scary play, which allowed them to practice skills for dealing with feelings of fear and anxiety.

People seek out a sweet spot of fear when they’re engaging in scary play. This means they must actively regulate how afraid and anxious they feel when they are reading a scary book, watching a horror movie, or making their way through a haunted attraction. One of the key techniques people use to reduce their fear when engaging with horror is suppression—and it seems to work in reducing fear while maintaining levels of enjoyment.

We’ve also found evidence from studies at haunted attractions that many horror fans intentionally use horror as a way to vehicle for dealing with feelings of fear, anxiety, and general existential dread. I’ve called these horror fans “Dark Copers.” Using horror to help with anxiety and depression was something that horror fans had talked about and written about quite often, but it was missing in empirical studies on horror.

Suppression is another tool to add to your toolkit of emotion regulation strategies. Sure, not thinking about something is difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And once you get good at it, it’s an effective strategy for certain situations.

Are you still thinking about that white bear? If so, you might need a little scary play in your life.

More from Coltan Scrivner Ph.D.
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