Contrary to some commonly accepted ideas, repressing negative emotions and thoughts is not harmful to mental health. Researchers affiliated with the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom even suggest that this would improve it while making certain concerns less acute and obvious.
“We are all familiar with the Freudian idea that if we suppress our feelings or thoughts, they remain in our unconscious and influence our behavior and well-being in pernicious ways. The goal of psychotherapy is to unearth these thoughts in order to treat them and strip them of their power. In recent years we have been told that thought suppression is inherently ineffective and that it actually makes people think about those thoughts more“, begins Professor Michael Anderson of the University of Cambridge, in a press release. A belief which has made the avoidance of negative thoughts a behavior to be avoided to preserve one’s mental health.
Faced with the deterioration in the mental health of populations during the Covid-19 pandemic, the researcher nevertheless wanted to focus on a brain mechanism, inhibitory control, which makes it possible to block automatic thoughts or actions that do not take place. to be to focus on completing a specific task. With Dr. Zulkayda Mamat, also affiliated with the University of Cambridge, he wanted to determine whether it was possible to train people to suppress negative thoughts. No less than 120 participants were recruited from sixteen countries, then asked to think of different realistic scenarios, including twenty fears and worries, twenty hopes and dreams, and thirty-six neutral events, which had to be unique to each person in order to register them. in reality.
Good in his body, good in his head!
Repress thoughts of fear and worry
Participants then had to evaluate each scenario according to a number of criteria, such as the level of associated anxiety or happiness, frequency of thought, emotional intensity, and then self-assessed their mental health via a questionnaire; allowing researchers to detect, for example, which ones were suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress. The final exercise took place via Zoom, where participants were trained for twenty minutes a day, for three days, to recognize and remember each scenario, blocking out any associated images or thoughts (for negative and neutral events). depending on the groups) and, on the contrary, by imagining the emotions felt in connection with other scenarios (for positive or neutral events). At the end of this experiment, they once again evaluated each scenario according to the aforementioned criteria.
Published in the journal Science Advances, this work first showed that the events that the participants tried to hide were less present in their thoughts, and preoccupied them much less, whether immediately after the experiment, or three months later. But the findings also reveal that repressing these thoughts had a positive impact on the mental health of participants, particularly those who initially suffered from post-traumatic stress. The researchers specify that negative mental health index scores decreased by an average of 16% among these participants.
“It became very clear that the events that participants practiced suppressing were less vivid, less emotionally anxiety-provoking than other events, and that, overall, participants’ mental health improved. But the largest effect was seen in participants who trained themselves to suppress fearful thoughts rather than neutral thoughts“, explains Dr Mamat. And Professor Anderson concludes: “What we discovered goes against conventional wisdom. Although more work is needed to confirm these findings, it appears that it is possible and even potentially beneficial to actively suppress our fearful thoughts“.