Very commonly one of the goals of psychotherapy (talk therapy) is to help a person retrieve previously suppressed thoughts. Going back to the 19th century and Sigmund Freud, the belief has been that suppressing negative thoughts does not get rid of them. Rather, the theory is, these thoughts sit around in the subconscious and have bad effects on everything from child development to coping with abuse, depression, and conditions like PTSD. Now we see that researchers in England took a different tact. They had test subjects suppress negative thoughts and did not see any bad outcomes. So, is suppressing negative thoughts really so terrible?
Negative Thought Suppression Experiment
Researchers in the UK taught 120 volunteers from all over the globe to suppress their thoughts about negative events that had been worrying them. Rather than seeing negative effects with these folks the researchers found that subject mental health generally improved as the negative thoughts became less powerful, frequent, and vivid. The doctors running the study were aware of the Freudian idea that suppressed thoughts and emotions lie in the back of the mind and exert bad effects on the wellbeing of the individual. There rationale of therapy is to bring these old memories and thoughts to mind which is supposed to “rob them of their power.”
This research is pertinent to our interests at No Fallen Heroes because successful treatment of conditions like PTSD and depression are believed to reduce the risk of suicide. Psychedelics work to allow the patient to bring back painful and frightening memories and talk about them. What does the UK study have to do this the effectiveness of psychotherapy?
Helping Folks Through the Pandemic
The idea for this study came about due to the great increase in anxiety people had during the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers wanted to see if people could override their normal tendency to worry about things by blocking negative thoughts when they arose. Some people are naturally good at blocking negative thoughts. The researchers wanted to know if this skill could be taught. They recruited 120 people in 16 countries.
Test subjects had to come up with negative, positive, and routine thoughts which they had or were still having. They were taught to associate a code word with each thought as well as a specific detail of that thought. They rated thoughts for level of anxiety, vividness, likelihood of occurring, degree of concern, emotional intensity, and both current and long-term impact.
Test subjects also completed a mental health questionnaire. Nobody was excluded for any reason. Each test subject was then trained in how to suppress thoughts.
These folks went through three days of testing and repeated the same testing three months later. Those who learned how to suppress thoughts and did so for three months had less vivid emotions in response to negative thoughts and much less anxiety. The training worked the best for fearful and highly emotional thoughts. The researchers noted that people who had PTSD were helped especially by this training showing significant improvement in mental health scores after three months.
No Rebound Problems From Suppressed Thoughts
The researchers noted that there were no apparent ill effects such as emotions coming out in other ways once they were suppressed. There were some in the study who were so impressed by the technique they learned that they taught it to others. What does this indicate about talk therapy and its effectiveness in treating PTSD, depression, and the like? In the cases of severely depressed individuals, people with treatment-resistant PTSD the problems are already there and need to be dealt with. In the cases of these test subjects, they may or may not have avoided long term issues by effectively dealing with issues before they arose.
What Is Real and What Is Not Real?
A serious issue for those suffering from PTSD, awful depression, and other mental health problems is knowing how things they think, remember, fear, and avoid fit into the broader scheme of daily life. A veteran who constantly relives combat situations is never asked to forget about what they went through. A common goal of therapy is to help them put what is past in the past and not inject past fears into current daily life. To this extent, the UK research may be useful once the person the person has successfully sorted out what is real and what is not real.
None of this is suggest that those who are hurting should suppress all thoughts and emotions. Rather this is useful research for professional to use in advancing treatments for serious mental health conditions.