"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Study: Suppress negative thoughts to enhance mental health

September 21, 2023 – A recent study suggests that suppressing negative thoughts can improve people’s mental health.

The findings offer a substitute for traditional therapy techniques that encourage people to face their fears. They also refute the widely held belief that suppressing negative thoughts can harm people.

Researchers on the University of Cambridge asked 61 people to list future events that they were currently fearful about, and a comparison group of 59 people to list future events that they were neutral about. In an activity called “suppression training,” they were taught to discover thoughts about future events and stop themselves from imagining those things. The training took place over the course of three one-on-one video sessions.

Those who suppressed negative thoughts reported improved mental health, including individuals with signs of tension, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, in accordance with Results published this week within the magazine Scientific advances.

The authors decided to conduct the study after observing the rise in mental illness through the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that a regular approach to treating distressing, intrusive thoughts is for people to “avoid suppressing their thoughts because the intensity and frequency of the intrusions could recur, thereby worsening the disturbances.”

Three months after training, most study participants reported that their repressed fears were less vivid and caused less anxiety, leading to an overall reduction in anxiety, fewer negative emotions, and a discount in depression.

During these three months, they weren’t instructed to make use of the thought suppression techniques they’d learned. Nevertheless, through the three months between training and follow-up, 82% of study participants reported that they’d used the techniques on the fears they’d practiced during training, and 80% said they’d used the techniques on recent fears.

When researchers specifically analyzed a smaller group of individuals with signs of clinical posttraumatic stress disorder, they found that this group also benefited from suppressing negative thoughts, and the resulting mental health advantages lasted for 3 months. The group with PTSD suppressed the fears they practiced through the training to an identical extent as the general group (81%), but 100% of individuals within the PTSD group reported using the abilities when faced with recent fears.

“I didn't have a single participant tell me, 'Oh, I feel bad' or 'That was useless.' I didn't prompt them or ask them, 'Did you find that helpful?' They just automatically told me how helpful they found it,” said researcher Zulkayda Mamat, PhD, in a Press releaseand said that one person noted how isolated they felt through the pandemic. “She said this study came at exactly the time she needed it because she had all these negative thoughts, all these worries and fears about the future, and this really, really helped her.”