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You *Can* Stop Thinking About It

Updated on December 10, 2015
BrevardJones profile image

The author is a librarian and lifelong learner, with a dilettante's interest in just about everything. And a doctorate, just for fun.

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."

— "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions," Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1863.

Don't think of polar bears

Daniel M. Wegner was a psychology professor at Harvard University and the founding father of thought suppression research. He and his colleagues conducted a set of experiments In which he asked subjects to just talk about anything that came to mind for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear or trying to think of that white bear, in various configurations. The results suggest that suppressing the thought caused it to "rebound" even more prominently than not suppressing it (Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, 53:1).


What doesn't work

All of us replay embarrassing or traumatic moments over and over again in our minds. People with mood disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders have even more difficulty with releasing unwanted thoughts.

But suppressing the thoughts by willpower alone simply doesn't work. Erskine and Georgiou (2010) looked at the effects of suppressing thoughts of chocolate and found that people who tried to suppress their chocolate thoughts actually ate more chocolate. (Source: Appetite, 54:3)

So when you are obsessing about an embarrassing moment, "I won't think about that morning when I walked out of the bathroom with my skirt tucked up in my underwear" is counterproductive. It just makes you feel embarrassed all over again and think about it more, particularly if you can suppress the thought for a short time.

More than that, believing that willpower is enough to suppress a thought can make it even harder to eliminate the thought. (Wegner, 2000) If you become overly self-critical because you expect yourself to be able to eliminate a thought by sheer willpower, you escalate the issues of mental-control failure. "Oh, geez, I'm so stupid I can't even make myself not think about that underwear fiasco. I should be able to stop." If you have issues with depression, obsession, or self-esteem, negative self-talk just makes it worse.

Wegner also found that unfocused self-distraction (thinking about the wall, the chair, a vase of flowers) doesn't work either. Not only are those thoughts short-lived, they can create an association with something that will later remind you of the suppressed thought. So, "I'll think of something else. I'll think of something else. Oh, look at the pretty flowers" can quickly morph back into "There are flowers on my underwear. I wonder if anyone saw them?" And then the next time you see a vase of flowers--you guessed it--you are reminded of your embarrassing moment.


Distract yourself with something absorbing

While distraction works briefly--in one study, Wegner and his team asked participants to think of a red Volkswagon instead of a white bear--if you are hanging on to something, your mind will return to the topic quickly. However, if you choose a very absorbing distraction, something that allows you to reach a state of flow or puts you "in the zone," you won't think about your obsession while in that zone, and you can possibly derail the thought completely.

Ways to reach that flow state generally include intense focus, skill, and a bit of challenge. For example:

  • meditation
  • reading
  • working on a project that is absorbing to you
  • running or sports
  • yoga
  • visualization techniques

It helps if you have your toolbox of distractions ready for when the thoughts get in your way. So, last week, when the box of Poptarts kept calling me from the kitchen, I might have succeeded at forgetting about them if I had played my favorite video game for an hour. I plan to banish next week's ice cream with a video game or a good book. My toolbox is ready.

Cut back on multitasking

When you are doing many things at one time, you open your mind to random thoughts, including those you are avoiding. Doing one thing at a time encourages that state of flow discussed above, and therefore helps distract you from the unwanted thought.

Postpone the worry

Research has found that it sometimes helps to set aside a particular amount of time each day for worrying. Then you can avoid thinking about the worries for the rest of the day, telling yourself, "I'll worry about that at 5:00 during my worry time" in order to banish the thought.

Accept the thought without judging

Marcks & Woods (2005) conducted a study using the following script that helped decrease unwanted thoughts:

“Struggling with your target thought is like struggling in quicksand. I want you to watch your thoughts. Imagine that they are coming out of your ears on little signs held by marching soldiers. I want you to allow the soldiers to march by in front of you, like a little parade. Do not argue with the signs, or avoid them, or make them go away. Just watch them march by.” (p. 440)

Confront it

Often, confronting a trauma and thinking about it in controlled ways can help eradicate the thought. Talking about it with a counselor, for example, or focusing on it during your "worry time" can rob the thought of its power and make it easier for you to set it free. Writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings can also allow you to confront a thought and let it go.

Let it go!

© 2015 BrevardJones


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