Suppressing your thoughts and feelings might unintentionally be your go-to coping mechanism, but as it turns out, suppressive behavior may have some tragically ironic consequences. Numerous psychological studies have shown the dangers of thought suppression, and in this guide, I'll show you a more healthy alternative for dealing with your demons.
The folks over at PsyBlog have already collected eight great studies directly related to the idea of suppression, and I feel you deserve to understand the implications of each study better, as well as some practical solutions.
Studies have shown that in your lifetime, there is a 25% chance you'll cheat on your partner. With odds like that, there must be something pretty damn appealing about infidelity. As it turns out, secrecy alone may be enough to inspire unfaithful behavior.
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by former Harvard psychologist David Wegner reveals our draw to nature's "forbidden fruit" and our attraction to secret relationships.
Participants were partnered up and told to play footsie under a table in the presence of others. One half of the participants were asked to keep their footsie play private, while the other half were asked to make it public.
After the flirting, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of their partner, and surprisingly, the couples that played private footsie reported much higher rates of attraction than those that made their flirting public.
The study comes with a powerful conclusion. It may be the case that secrecy actually creates attraction.
At the end of the publication, Wegner explains that people may use this aspect of human nature when strategizing ways to build relationships. If a person wants someone else, they may intentionally drag them into secret relationship.
As the study states, "this strategy may be useful in prompting in initial intrigue with the relationship that might not otherwise occur."
The moral of the story is pretty straightforward. The study states that during an affair, "the secret relationship may take over and become the person's new primary relationship." Thus the other relationship will become the "secret," and the cycle will continue infinitely. There is no way to escape, other than destroying the secret by being honest.
The next time you tell someone a secret, don't plan on them keeping it. Studies have concluded that 60% of adults can't go 10 minutes without lying. It turns out, telling someone specifically not to do something may actually encourage them to do it.
In this study from the April 2006 issue of Psychological Science, researchers at the University of California San Diego gave participants cards with various shapes printed on them. Each shape had unique attributes like color and size.
During the study, half the group was explicitly instructed to describe the shapes without giving away any of the shape's unique attributes, while the other group was given no specific directions at all. Surprisingly, speakers who were told not to describe the unique attributes were much more likely to do so than the group that was given no specific direction.
According to research on repressive coping, only a very small percentage of the population is able to successfully repress sensitive information without experiencing intrusive thoughts or mental stress. There's a good chance you're not one of these mental superhumans.
Instead of repressing secrets, research shows that confiding in a trusted friend or putting your thoughts on paper can significantly reduce the chances that you'll share them. Furthermore, the same study shows that writing about your thoughts can boost your immune system and decrease your risk of depression.
Be honest, there is probably a certain group of people you dislike. Personally, my issue is with middle school-aged children who have an obsessive interest in terrible vampire films. According to psychologists, however, I shouldn't keep this a secret. So there, now you know.
This study by University of Aberdeen professor Neil Macrae shows how suppressing prejudices makes us more likely to act on them. Unless you'd like to purchase the .PDF for $11.95, you'll have to take my word for it. Long study short, participants who were actively told to suppress their dislike of white supremacists were much more likely to sit further away from them in a waiting room than the participants who were not instructed to suppress their prejudices.
The solution to overcoming prejudice is not to act on your prejudices or confront a group of white supremacists. Have you seen American History X? It's generally not a good idea to upset a group of angry people.
This UC Berkeley sponsored blog offers 10 strategies for overcoming prejudice. Solutions range from things as obvious as immersing yourself in another culture, to something as subtle as recognizing the fact that biases are natural human attributes that have nothing to do with what you actually believe.
To sum up the blog article, a few key points to fighting prejudice include:
- Make yourself a new friend (preferably with the group you dislike).
- Assume others are interested in reaching out to you.
- Acknowledge differences rather than fighting them.
- Take part in collective challenges like helping out planet.
- Stay physically healthy.
- Find a common struggle with the group you dislike.
Isn't it strange how a we spend more time thinking about places we aren't allowed to go? Whenever I see a "Do Not Enter" sign, I can't help but think what lies beyond. Ironically, our obsession with what's "off limits" may actually drive us there.
A study on golfers in the December 2000 issue of the Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that "yips," or the little muscular twitches that cause golfers to choke mid swing, are influenced by their mind. Literally, their psychologies cause a twitching muscular reflex.
So what is on their minds then? Well, as in any sport involving precision, they're likely thinking about the places they shouldn't be hitting the ball. Ironically, those little yips end up driving the ball to the exact places they wanted to avoid.
Like the haunted house you passed on your way home from school, any place that's considered "off limits" is instantly going to appeal to you.
If you're trying to avoid a certain side of town or some place like a strip club, go ahead and take the mystery and appeal out of it. If it's safe, travel to that place at the right time and learn about it. Much like the allure of secret relationships, the more you try to suppress a place in your mind, the more appealing it will become.
They say Hitler never cried, and look how he turned out. It's okay to be honest and let your feelings show. Though society constantly pressures men into acting "tough" and pegs women as being "overly emotional," repressing your emotions is unhealthy.
Clinical psychologists are careful not to advocate thought suppression to depressed clients. This guide, by psychologists Christopher T. Beavers at the University of Texas -Austin, reveals that thought suppression can be detrimental to their mental health of a patient, and instead, resorting to acceptance and distraction is a much healthier way to deal with depression.
In his guide, Beavers puts a heavy emphasis on acceptance:
"Acceptance is experiencing both the positive and negative aspects of thoughts and feelings, without constricting, distorting, passing judgement, evaluating, or trying to get rid of them."
Although it seems paradoxical, accepting your unfavorable circumstances can actually lead to favorable results.
So long as you don't hurt anyone or complain to the point of isolating yourself socially, it's okay to let out a good cry now and then.
Along the same lines as burying mental pain, avoiding physical pain can also have unintended consequences.
In this study by Spanish psychologists Ana Masedo and Rosa Esteve, 219 undergraduate students placed their hand in ice water and were asked to either suppress the pain, accept it, or use various coping techniques.
Surprisingly, the group that was asked to suppress the pain backed out much sooner than the group that was asked to ignore it. Not only that, but after measuring the heart rate and blood pressure of both groups, the acceptance group showed the lowest evidence of distress.
You will suffer. It is a fact of life and you cannot avoid it.
Take a lesson from the happiest man on Earth. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin hooked buddhist Richard Davidson up to 128 brain sensors and found an "abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity."
The happiest man on Earth follows a religion built entirely around suffering. The very first rule of the most important doctrine in Buddhism is first of the Four Noble Truths—life is suffering. That is true acceptance.
In a Harvard study titled "The Ironic Effects of Sleep Urgency," participants were asked either fall asleep as quickly as possible or whenever they desired. Additionally, some participants were required to listen to John Philip Sousa's stressful marches while trying to sleep and suppress the stimulus.
Surprisingly, the participants who were told to fall asleep whenever they wanted, while still listening to the stressful music, had less trouble sleeping than those who were instructed specifically to fall asleep quickly.
Approach your bed with an "anything goes" attitude and you will find the dividends pay off in more ways than one, if you get my drift.
Sigmund Freud had some pretty screwy theories on dreams that aren't really accepted today by modern psychologists. However, his idea that dreams are influenced by our daily lives and mental processes are spot on.
A study in a 2008 issue of Consciousness and Cognition instructed a group of sleepers to either suppress thoughts or think freely about whatever was on their mind. The results showed that those who suppressed their thoughts reported dreaming about the suppressed content more than the participants who were instructed to confront their thoughts.
The thoughts that you have are real and deserved to be thought about. If you try to bury your thoughts or memories, your dreams will be sure to resurrect them for you. To avoid the Boogie Man, try keeping a journal by your bed to hash out all your demons. Otherwise, consider changing your sleeping position.
Now, obviously there are a lot more than just eight harmful effects that suppression can have on you, but hopefully this rundown will help you deal with them all by better understand what's going on—and what you can do.