Thought Suppression and OCD

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Obsessions, in which you experience seemingly uncontrollable and extremely distressing thoughts, are a core symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although a natural reaction for many affected people is to try and suppress, or push away, these thoughts, research shows that thought suppression can actually make obsessions worse.

What Is Thought Suppression?

Thought suppression is trying to ignore or control thoughts that we find threatening or distressing. For example, when reminded of an embarrassing incident or a time when you were rejected, you might try to actively push away these thoughts by distracting yourself or trying to think about something else. Interestingly, research has shown that the more you try to suppress your thoughts, the more those same thoughts come back (even if you don’t have OCD).

Suppressing Your Thoughts Does More Harm Than Good

If you try to suppress a thought when you are feeling down, anxious or stressed, that thought then becomes connected to the emotional state you're in. Because of the emotional connection, the next time you feel whatever emotion that's connected with the thought you were trying to push aside, you're actually more likely to experience the unwanted thought, likely worsening your mood. 

Thought Suppression With Obsessions

Given that distressing thought, called obsessions, are at the core of OCD, it has been suggested thought suppression may play a role in causing some of the symptoms of OCD. For instance, although we all experience strange, bizarre or shocking thoughts throughout the day, if you have OCD, you may overreact to such thoughts by trying to suppress them, which only causes them to come back worse than before. Of course, this leads to more thought suppression, which leads to experiencing more distressing thoughts. It can turn into a vicious cycle.

What the Research Says

For example, as part of a research study, people with OCD were asked to suppress their distressing thoughts some days while allowing themselves to have these thoughts on others. At the end of each day, they were asked to record the number of intrusive thoughts they experienced in a diary. Not surprisingly, people with OCD recorded twice as many intrusive thoughts on the days they tried to suppress their thoughts than the days where they let their thoughts flow freely.

What Can I Do?

If you have OCD, getting away from thought suppression as a coping strategy can be difficult and it may be helpful to consult with a psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health professionals to learn some effective strategies.

OCD Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

Mind Doc Guide

Specifically, a new generation of behavior therapies addresses thought suppression as part of their overall therapeutic strategy. Therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) work to build flexibility in thinking rather than trying to eliminate distressing thoughts like obsessions using a variety of mindfulness techniques, metaphors, and life enhancement exercises. 

The official site for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science has lots of ACT resources for the public, including information, discussion groups, a search tool to find ACT therapists, recommended books and audio tapes for meditation and centering exercises.

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