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Does Trying to Suppress Unwanted Thoughts Work?

Does trying to suppress unwanted thoughts work? What if you're told not to think about a white bear?

I was browsing the web for interesting therapy materials, when I came across the worksheets for Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders (affiliate link) on the website of one of the authors, Dr. John Forsyth. I’ve never done ACT, but I’ve done a lot of reading about it, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

The White Bear Suppression Inventory

One thing that I found particularly interesting is the White Bear Suppression Inventory. What does a white bear have to do with anything? It’s because if I tell you not to think about a white bear for the next minute, you’re pretty much guaranteed to think about a white bear, even though the last time such a thing crossed your mind was probably 10 years ago.

You’re supposed to rate each of these items from 1=strongly disagree to 5=strongly agree:

  1. There are things I prefer not to think about.
  2. Sometimes I wonder why I have the thoughts I do.
  3. I have thoughts that I cannot stop.
  4. There are images that come to mind that I cannot erase.
  5. My thoughts frequently return to one idea.
  6. I wish I could stop thinking of certain things.
  7. Sometimes my mind races so fast I wish I could stop it.
  8. I always try to put problems out of mind.
  9. There are thoughts that keep jumping into my head.
  10. Sometimes I stay busy just to keep thoughts from intruding on my mind.
  11. There are things that I try not to think about.
  12. Sometimes I really wish I could stop thinking.
  13. I often do things to distract myself from my thoughts.

Thoughts from original posting date (2018)

I was already aware that I tend to use avoidance as a fall-back strategy, but this inventory reminded me just how much I end up doing this. I would rate myself a 5 (strongly agree) for questions 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, and 14. Yikes. Yet I wonder if my illness is in such a place where suppression is the only way I can manage to keep it together most of the time.

From a mindfulness perspective, is it useful to think about things related to past and future that I have limited control over, or is it better to just keep on chugging in the present moment?

Thoughts from 2021

It’s interesting to come back to this post and see how things have changed. I wouldn’t rate myself as a 5 on any of these items, and on many of them, I’m a 1. So, what’s changed?

Part of it is the trajectory my depressive illness has taken. Back in 2018, emotions and distressed played more of a role. Now, everything has slowed right down, both in terms of thoughts and physical movement (psychomotor retardation). My mind is a fairly empty place; there’s just not enough thought going on to feel the need to wrestle it into submission.

I also have a better grasp of what suppression/avoidance and acceptance are in the context of acceptance and commitment therapy. Acceptance isn’t liking or wanting or choosing to have unpleasant experiences. Suppression is fighting; acceptance is not fighting. What you fight will persist, whereas when you accept, you recognize that what’s unpleasant is there in this moment, but will leave on its own in a few more moments.

Suppression is like building a dam in a stream because you don’t like what’s floating down the stream. If you accept it and let the leaves on the stream float by, the total duration of distress is going to be less than if you build your dam and then it eventually overflows and floods the surrounding area.

Did this suppression inventory tell you anything new about yourself, or did it confirm anything you already knew?

Acceptance: It's raining – I'm better off getting out my umbrella than trying to stop it
Embrace Acceptance guided journal

Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. You can find it on the Resources page.

9 thoughts on “Does Trying to Suppress Unwanted Thoughts Work?”

  1. yes and no
    so thoughts
    in my head
    want to have
    so i can obtain
    a physical release
    but without ya love
    it is a mess
    i do confess!

  2. I really didn’t need to read the list to know I’m an avoidant suppressor! 😀
    Sometimes it’s all we can do to hold ourselves together.
    You’re definitely not alone.

  3. This most certainly coincides with how my thinking is. I have several flashbacks to when I was a kid and relationship with my ex-husband. I far worse times dealing with all of the above around holidays. No matter how hard I try to live in the present moment, intrusive thoughts seem to peak around the holidays the most.

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