What Is Thought Suppression?

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What Is Thought Suppression?

Thought suppression occurs when we try to ignore or control intrusive thoughts that we find threatening or distressing. Thought suppression can be common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is because obsessions, in which you experience seemingly uncontrollable and extremely distressing thoughts, are a core symptom of the condition.

Although a natural reaction for many people with OCD is to try and push these intrusive thoughts away, that may make obsessions worse. Thought suppression may lead to a "rebound" effect, where the effort to push a thought away actually causes it to return. Of course, this leads to more thought suppression, which leads to experiencing more distressing thoughts. It can turn into a vicious cycle.

Obsessions

Obsessions are recurring thoughts, urges, or mental images that feel intrusive, unwanted, and distressing. People with OCD will often try to ignore or suppress obsessions, or they may take an action to neutralize them.

Compulsions

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental activities that someone with OCD feels they must perform. Compulsions often accompany an obsession, or they might happen according to a set of self-imposed rules. Someone with OCD engages in a compulsion as a way to alleviate distress or prevent something negative from occurring.

Impact of Thought Suppression

Trying to suppress an intrusive, unwanted thought can cause it to rebound, or reoccur. This happens because, while an initial thought can occur automatically and without any mental effort, trying to suppress it is a controlled, conscious process that requires mental resources.

You can deplete your mental resources by trying to suppress a thought repeatedly or for a long time, meaning you will eventually be unsuccessful. You may also have trouble suppressing thoughts if your mental resources are already depleted, like when you're feeling stressed, tired, or distracted by something else.

We all encounter intrusive thoughts from time to time, and we have all experienced this paradox of thought suppression. In fact, it has been famously described as the "white bear problem," which is a reference to a 1987 study that found that asking people not to think of a white bear actually increased the number of times they thought of the animal.

Intrusive thoughts can pose a bigger problem for someone with OCD, however. People with this condition may experience these thoughts more often, meaning they will have to spend more time trying to suppress them. Intrusive thoughts can also feel more distressing and anxiety-provoking for someone with OCD.

How to Avoid Suppression

Instead of suppressing your intrusive thoughts, try getting some mental distance from them. If you can learn to notice when these thoughts occur, you may be able to challenge them, making them feel less distressing.

Part of this process involves addressing thought-action fusion, which is a key characteristic of OCD. This is the belief that thoughts are equivalent to actions—meaning if someone with OCD has obsessive thoughts about sexual or aggressive behavior, for example, it would be as distressing to them as if they had actually engaged in that behavior.

Mindfulness may help you get the mental distance you need to untangle thought-action fusion. This practice encourages you to notice your thoughts and emotions while maintaining a non-judgmental point of view.

For example, when an intrusive thought arises, instead of suppressing it or reacting to it, you would acknowledge the thought non-judgmentally and remind yourself that it doesn't control you. For people with OCD, learning to accept thoughts without judging them may make intrusive thoughts happen less often and feel less distressing.

Managing your overall stress may also be helpful. Stress-reduction practices can include:

Psychotherapy

If you have OCD, getting away from thought suppression as a coping strategy can be difficult. It may be helpful to consult with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professionals to learn more effective strategies to deal with intrusive thoughts and obsessions as part of your overall treatment for OCD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a form of therapy that encourages you to notice your thought patterns so you can understand the effect that they have on your life. CBT incorporates a number of different strategies (including mindfulness) for becoming aware of negative thoughts, and teaches you how to adopt more constructive thinking habits.

CBT has been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms of OCD.

There are many different types of CBT. For people with OCD, this form of therapy may focus on:

  • Learning to accept your thoughts (rather than trying to suppress or avoid them)
  • Exposing yourself to things that trigger obsessions or compulsions so you can learn to control your response

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT is a form of CBT that works to build flexibility in thinking rather than trying to eliminate distressing thoughts like obsessions. This form of therapy uses a variety of mindfulness techniques, metaphors, and life enhancement exercises, and it's been shown to be helpful for people with OCD.

A core part of ACT is learning to practice acceptance instead of avoidance. In the case of an intrusive thought, that would mean accepting the presence of the thought without making an effort to suppress it or change it in any way.

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 audiotapes for meditation and centering exercises.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)

ERP is another form of CBT, and it's focused on helping you learn a different way to respond to your triggers. ERP involves being exposed to a stimulus that causes fear or anxiety while you refrain from engaging in the compulsion that you would usually use to cope with those feelings. Like ACT, ERP discourages avoidance.

ERP involves working closely with a qualified therapist. You'll need to understand what your triggers are before you can go through this process and, as you confront them, you'll need your therapist to offer support and guidance.

ERP can be intense, but it may be an effective way to reduce the symptoms of OCD.

OCD Discussion Guide

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

Mind Doc Guide

A Word From Verywell

Everyone struggles with intrusive thoughts, and experiencing setbacks during your OCD treatment is common. Continuing to work closely with your doctor can help you move forward and eventually reduce the symptoms of your condition.

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