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Why Suppressing Thoughts and Obsessions Doesn't Work

By: Sally Aquire - Updated: 21 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Ocd Symptoms Thought Suppression

When intrusive thoughts and images enter your mind as a result of your OCD obsessions, it can be tempting to try to block them out in the hope that they go away. This may sound good in theory but research has indicated that it isn't a helpful tactic and can actually make your OCD obsessions worse.

What Is Thought Suppression?

Thought suppression involves trying to block out intrusive thoughts that are frightening or upsetting to try to make them go away. Distressing thoughts are consciously pushed out of your mind by focusing on something else as a distraction technique. This can be mentally exhausting as it takes a lot of effort to do.

Thought Suppression And OCD

Experts have suggested that thought suppression can have a negative impact on OCD symptoms. Suppressing negative thoughts encourages them to return with a vengeance and this creates a vicious cycle in which more distressing thoughts occur and thought suppression is again attempted to get rid of them, which then leads to more distressing thoughts and so on. In this sense, thought suppression can make OCD obsessions worse than they may otherwise have been. Memories are also believed to return with increased intensity when they are suppressed.

To demonstrate how thought suppression works, try participating in the following exercise, which has been the basis of psychological research into thought suppression. It involves not thinking about a white bear for at least the next few minutes. For most people, the image of a white bear will pop up at least once in that time period and the more you try not to think about it, the more likely it is to enter your mind.

Why does this happen? It has been suggested that after you have consciously tried to suppress an intrusive thought or image, your mind unconsciously wants to check whether you have successfully managed to do so. If it senses anything that is even vaguely connected to the intrusion that you're trying to suppress, the original thought or image is triggered again and you are back to square one. Even for those who don't suffer from OCD, research has suggested that thought suppression only serves to increase the frequency of unwanted thoughts and images.

Connected to this is the idea that certain thoughts and images can become associated with anxiety and tension to the extent that they unconsciously crop up when this state of mind is present, which then further impacts on your mindset.

Rejecting Thought Suppression

If you've previously been using thought suppression to deal with intrusive thoughts and images, it can be very hard to break the pattern and stop using this unhelpful thinking style as a coping mechanism. In most cases, treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that focus on changing thought processes will be useful for rejecting thought suppression. Professional treatment can teach you how to move past thought suppression so that it is no longer your gut reaction when an intrusive thought or image enters your mind.

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