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The widespread belief that trying to suppress negative thoughts harms mental health — commonly held by clinical psychologists — is wrong, according to a study by researchers at Cambridge university.
Neuroscientists Zulkayda Mamat and Michael Anderson trained 60 volunteers from around the world to block and if possible forget distressing thoughts, in online sessions over three days.
This produced a marked improvement in their state of mind and reduced feelings of depression, which persisted when participants were assessed again three months later.
A separate control group of 60 people, who used the same technique to suppress neutral rather than negative thoughts, experienced less improvement in mental wellbeing. Results were published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
“We’re all familiar with the Freudian idea that if we suppress our feelings or thoughts, then these thoughts remain in our unconscious, influencing our behaviour and wellbeing perniciously,” said Anderson. “The whole point of psychotherapy is to dredge up these thoughts so one can deal with them and rob them of their power.”
It had become dogma in clinical psychology that efforts to banish thoughts or memories of a particular subject were counterproductive and made people think more about them, he said. “We challenge the view that thought suppression worsens mental illness.”
The study took place during the Covid-19 pandemic when the scientists were unable to carry out their planned research with brain scanners because of lockdown restrictions.
“Because of the pandemic, we were seeing a need in the community to help people cope with surging anxiety,” Mamat said. “There was already a . . . hidden epidemic of mental health problems, and this was getting worse. So with that backdrop, we decided to see if we could help people cope better.”
Most participants were very surprised by how quickly and effectively they could suppress particular ideas and memories by consciously shutting them out of their mind, she said. Many were so impressed that they continued to use the technique in their everyday lives after the study ended.
The researchers plan to continue their work with more extensive studies using an app designed to aid thought suppression.
Mamat said the research should not undermine the whole field of psychotherapy but “offer an alternative for people when expressing their thoughts in talking therapies is not working. Honestly, some things are meant to be forgotten.”
Noel Bell, a London-based psychotherapist speaking for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, said: “This is a potentially groundbreaking paper which turns the tenets of mainstream psychotherapy on their head. It will certainly raise debate in the profession.”
Bell said he looked forward to seeing whether the Cambridge study’s findings were confirmed and expanded in future research.
María Cantero-García, a psychologist at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid who was not involved in the study, said more research was needed “to fully understand the implications of these results”.
“This study could offer additional tools to help people deal with their thoughts effectively, always taking into account the circumstances and context. However, it is essential that therapists continue to assess each situation individually . . . in their clinical practice.”