The widespread belief that trying to suppress negative thoughts is harmful to mental health – a common belief among clinical psychologists – is false, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge has shown.
Neuroscientists Zulkayda Mamat and Michael Anderson trained 60 volunteers from around the world for this Prevent and, if possible, forget painful thoughts, In online sessions over three days.
This resulted in a significant improvement in their mood and reduced feelings of depression, which persisted when the participants were assessed again three months later.
A separate control group of 60 people, who used the same technique to suppress neutral thoughts rather than negative thoughts, saw less improvement in mental health. The results were published on Wednesday Scientific Progress Magazine.
“We are all familiar with the Freudian idea that if we repress our feelings or thoughts, those thoughts remain in our subconscious, influencing our behavior and well-being in harmful ways,” Anderson said. “The goal of psychotherapy is to bring these thoughts to the surface so we can deal with them and steal their power.”
He said it has become a dogma in clinical psychology that efforts to banish thoughts or memories related to a particular topic are counterproductive and make people think about them more. “We challenge the view that thought suppression exacerbates mental illness.”
The study was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, when scientists were unable to carry out planned brain scanner research due to lockdown restrictions.
“Because of the pandemic, we saw a need in the community to help people deal with increased anxiety,” Mamat said. “There was already a hidden epidemic of mental health problems, and the situation was getting worse. So, against this background, we decided to see if we could help people cope better.”
She said that most participants were surprised by how quickly and effectively they were able to suppress certain thoughts and memories, and consciously delete them from their minds. Many were so impressed that they continued to use this technique in their daily lives after the study ended.
The researchers plan to continue their work with more comprehensive studies using an app designed to help suppress thoughts.
Mamat said the research should not undermine the entire field of psychotherapy, but “offers an alternative for people when expressing their feelings in verbal therapy doesn't work. Frankly, some things should be forgotten.”
Noel Bell, a London-based psychotherapist who represents the UK Psychotherapy Council, said: “This is a potential research paper that turns the principles of traditional psychotherapy on their head. It is sure to spark controversy within the profession.”
Bell said he looks forward to seeing the results of the Cambridge study confirmed and expanded in future research.
More research is needed to “fully understand the implications of these findings,” said Maria Cantero García, a psychologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid who was not involved in the study.
“This study may provide additional tools to help people deal effectively with their thoughts, always taking circumstances and context into account. However, it is essential that therapists continue to evaluate each case individually in their clinical practice.”
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