Basics What Is Attention Suppression? By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." Learn about our editorial process Published on November 23, 2022 Print Courtneyk / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents History Identifying Attention Suppression Impact Tips Potential Pitfalls Attention suppression is a cognitive process by which we consciously or unconsciously avoid focusing on certain stimuli. This can happen when the stimulus is unpleasant, overwhelming, or simply not interesting to us. Attention suppression can help manage anxiety and stress, as well as improve our focus and productivity. However, it can also lead to problems if we avoid important information or ignore potential dangers. History of Attention Suppression The concept of attention suppression has been studied for centuries. Early philosophers like Aristotle and Plato discussed the idea that humans had the ability to control their thoughts and direct their attention. In more recent years, psychologists have conducted extensive research on attention and its role in our lives. We Can Only Pay Attention to So Much At One Time One of the most influential early studies on attention suppression was conducted by psychologist William James in the late 1800s. James found that we have limited mental resources available to us at any given time and that we can only focus on a limited number of things simultaneously. This led him to conclude that it is impossible to focus on everything at once and that we must selectively choose what we pay attention to. Since then, a great deal of research has been conducted on the topic of attention suppression. Psychologists have found that we use a variety of strategies to avoid focusing on certain stimuli. For example, we may try to distract ourselves by thinking about something else, or we may simply ignore the stimulus altogether. Identifying Attention Suppression Attention suppression can be difficult to identify because it often happens unconsciously. However, some signs may indicate that you are suppressing your attention. Below are a few different ways that psychologists use to identify attention suppression: Thought-listing: One common method is to ask people to report their thoughts and feelings in response to various stimuli. This can be done using a technique called thought-listing, which involves asking people to list all of the thoughts that come to mind in response to a given stimulus.Eye-tracking: Another method is to use eye-tracking devices to measure where people are looking when they are presented with different stimuli. This allows researchers to see whether people avoid looking at certain things.EEG (Electroencephalography): Another method is to use EEG machines to measure brain activity in response to various stimuli. This can provide insights into which areas of the brain are active when someone is suppressing their attention. Types of Attention Suppression Different types of attention suppression can be distinguished based on the stimulus that is being avoided. For example, some people may use attentional suppression to avoid negative emotions like fear or sadness. Others may use it to avoid stimuli that are overwhelming or confusing. Still, others may use attentional suppression to improve their focus and productivity. Attentional suppression can also be classified based on the strategy that is used to avoid the stimulus. For example, some people may use distraction strategies like thinking about something else or listening to music. Others may use avoidance strategies like avoiding eye contact or leaving the room. Still, others may use denial strategies like pretending the stimulus isn’t there or denying its importance. There are also two main types of attention suppression: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention suppression: This type of attention suppression occurs when we consciously choose to avoid focusing on certain stimuli. This might happen when we are trying to focus on something else or when we find the stimulus unpleasant. Involuntary attention suppression: This type of attention suppression occurs when we unconsciously avoid focusing on certain stimuli. This might happen if the stimulus is too overwhelming or if we have developed a habit of ignoring it. Impact of Attention Suppression The impact of attention suppression can vary depending on the type of stimulus that is being avoided. For example, suppressing your attention to a negative emotion like fear may help you feel better in the short term, but it can also lead to long-term problems like anxiety or depression. Suppressing your attention to an overwhelming or confusing stimulus may help you feel less overwhelmed in the moment, but it can also prevent you from learning about and understanding the stimulus. And finally, suppressing your attention to improve productivity may help you get more work done in the short term, but it can also lead to problems like burnout in the long term. In general, attention suppression can have both positive and negative consequences. It is important to be aware of the potential impact of attention suppression before using it as a way to cope with a difficult situation.On the positive side, attention suppression can help us to manage anxiety and stress, as well as improve our focus and productivity. It can also protect us from potentially harmful or unpleasant information.On the negative side, attention suppression can lead to problems if we avoid important information or ignore potential dangers. It can also make it difficult to form new memories or learn new information. Tips for Attention Suppression There are a few different things you can do to improve your ability to suppress your attention. First, it is important to be aware of the various strategies that you can use to suppress attention. These include distraction, thought-stopping, and avoidance. Second, it is helpful to practice using these strategies in order to become better at them. This can be done by deliberately choosing to focus on something else when you find yourself getting distracted or by trying to stop your thoughts when they start to wander. Third, it is important to have realistic expectations for your ability to suppress attention. It is impossible to eliminate all distractions or prevent allintrusive thoughts completely. Therefore, it is important to focus on improving your attention suppression skills rather than striving for perfection. What Is Thought Suppression? Potential Pitfalls of Attention Suppression There are a few potential pitfalls that you should be aware of when using attention suppression: First, it is important to make sure that you are not using attention suppression as a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions or situations. This can lead to problems in the long run. Second, it is possible to overuse attention suppression strategies, leading to fatigue and burnout. Therefore, it is important to use these strategies in moderation and to take breaks when needed. Third, attention suppression can sometimes backfire and actually increase the likelihood of intrusive thoughts or images. 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IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng. 2015;23(6):1085-1094. doi:10.1109/TNSRE.2015.2415520 By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.