How To: 8 Terrible Consequences of Suppressing Your Thoughts & How to Avoid Them

8 Terrible Consequences of Suppressing Your Thoughts & How to Avoid Them

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.

1. The Allure of Secret Relationships

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.

Footsie is a trap. Beware. Image via Shutterstock

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.

Avoiding the Secret Relationship Trap

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."

Anyone who's seen "Fatal Attraction" knows the danger of holding on too long. Image via The Daily Beast

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.

2. Your Secret Isn't Safe with Me—Or Anyone Else

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.

Sharing Certain Secrets Will Reduce Stress

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.

Imagine how many deaths would have been avoided if the mom in Nightmare on Elm Street would have been straight up about burning Freddy. Image by "A Nightmare on Elm Street"/New Line Cinema

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.

3. Bottled Up Hatred Always Ends with an Explosion

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.

How You Can Overcome Your Prejudice

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.

An ex-skinhead played by Edward Norton cries next to his dead brother who confronted his prejudices the wrong way. Image by "American History X"/New Line Cinema

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.

4. The "Do Not Enter" Effect

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.

Just Enter (If It's Safe)

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.

Imagine a life for Scout without Boo Radley. Image by "To Kill a Mockingbird"/Universal Pictures

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.

5. Burying Your Emotions Will Only Preserve Them

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.

Let Out a Good Cry Every Now & Then

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.

Just two great friends being honest and open with each other about their feelings. Image by "Dumb & Dumber"/New Line Cinema

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.

6. Life Is Suffering, So Deal with It

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.

The Solution: Suffer & Suffer Well

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 Dalai Lama. Image via Breathing for Forgiveness

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.

7. Suppressing Things Can Lead to Insomnia

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.

Go to Bed Without Any Intentions to Sleep

Other than trying these weird tips for sleeping better (and thesethese other tips), you should slip under the sheets with absolutely no intention of falling asleep by a certain time period.

Imagine laying in a bed all day and hanging out with David Byrne like Swoosie Kurtz in True Stories. Image by "True Stories"/Warner Bros.

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.

8. The Boogie Man Is Literally Your Suppressed Thoughts

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.

Use a Dream Journal (Or New Sleeping Position)

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.

Gael Garcia Bernal embraces spontaneous sleep in The Science of Sleep, and he has awesome dreams. Image by "The Science of Sleep"/Warner Independent Features

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.

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Cover image via Bhernandez/Flickr

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