MH@H Mental Health

Suppression of Unwanted Thoughts – Does it Work?

Suppressing unwanted thoughts: Image of 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 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 and Commitment Therapy Fundamentals mini-ebook

The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values.

10 thoughts on “Suppression of Unwanted Thoughts – Does it Work?”

  1. yes and no
    so thoughts
    in my head
    dread
    want to have
    things
    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. I scored similarly to you. I can guarantee you that if I were unmedicated or less medicated, I’d be living in a constant flashback hell. I definitely think you should try EMDR if you haven’t yet. It helped me a lot with some of these memories. I don’t think suppression is a bad thing. It keeps our minds happier and more present than thinking bad thoughts. I do think it’s a problem when those thoughts pester you or harass you. “Give me attention! Give me attention!” Some things are better off forgotten, and if they weren’t forgotten at the time, EMDR is the only answer I know of. I say this knowing I need a touch more EMDR myself, but I don’t want to get it. I’d have to find a good therapist. (Enough said right there, I’m sure.) I’d have to pay money. GROAN. Whether it’s useful to think about things from the past depends on whether you’re reprocessing it (like I was in my latest blog post) or feeling traumatized all over again (in which case, you’d need EMDR). I think.

  4. 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.

Leave a Reply