How to handle thoughts you can't get out of your head

Have you ever tried to lose weight just by not thinking about food? Have you tried to play it cool and not call (or email or text) a love interest by blocking out all thoughts about that person? Have you attempted to quit smoking by trying not to think about smoking?

Did it work? I’ll bet it didn’t. But it’s really not your fault.

Despite it being a double-edged sword, thought suppression is a commonly used strategy. People often try to block out or put the lid on unwanted thoughts and feelings in order to limit the influence those thoughts have on their behaviour. Dieters try to suppress thoughts of tempting snacks, alcoholics suppress their desire to drink, stressed-out workers suppress their feelings of anxiety, and smokers suppress the thought of cigarettes when trying to quit.

But thought suppression is very difficult, only briefly works, and can have unintended consequences. Suppression has actually been shown to increase the frequency of the thoughts you were trying to rid yourself of once the period of active suppression is over. If you try to stifle thoughts of smoking, the thoughts will likely come rushing back with even greater power once you let your guard down, as you inevitably will. But does this unintended consequence actually lead to more smoking? Does this approach leave you worse off, and farther from quitting, than when you started?

The answer is yes. In a new study, undergrads who smoked, on average, at least half a pack of cigarettes each day were asked to keep track of their smoking habits for several weeks. During the second week, some of the students were asked to suppress any and all thoughts about smoking. These students smoked significantly fewer cigarettes during this week than the non-suppressers. During the third week of the study, when the students were no longer asked to suppress thoughts of smoking, they smoked significantly more cigarettes than the non-suppressors.

The researchers who led the study also examined the students’ stress levels across all three weeks. Not surprisingly, the suppressors reported a dramatic rise in stress during the week they were suppressing their thoughts, while non-suppressors’ stress levels remained unchanged. Not only does the thought-suppression strategy backfire; it feels terrible while you are doing it.

What is the best way to successfully deal with unwanted thoughts in ways that don’t end up diminishing your willpower? Here are two suggestions:

1. Don’t suppress, replace.

Decide in advance what you will think about when a thought about smoking, snacking, or hitting “redial” pops into your head. When you find yourself thinking about how yummy a candy bar would be right now, try replacing that thought with one that focuses on your health and weight-loss goals (e.g., “It feels better to fit into my jeans than it does to wolf down chocolate-covered nougat”).

2. Don’t suppress, plan.

Creating an if-then plan is a more effective way to deal with temptations. You don’t need to block thoughts out—what you really need to do is learn how not to act on them. By planning in advance for exactly what you will do when the tempting thought occurs, it will be far easier to stick to your goals. For example, when thoughts about smoking occur, plan to chew gum or step outside for several long deep breaths of fresh air. No matter what your plan is, it will disrupt the connection between the thought and giving in to the temptation. Over time, the thoughts will fade on their own.

It’s almost never a good idea to try to put a lid on your thoughts and feelings. This strategy might seem like it’s working in the short term, but you’ll soon find yourself right back where you started—surrounded by candy wrappers and wondering why she hasn’t returned your three dozen phone calls

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