This week saw the publication of this interesting study on how it could be possible to improve mental health by training the suppression of unwanted thoughts.
I’m sceptical of this, as in my experience, it feels like more effort to suppress and deny thoughts, than to accept and welcome them in. There is also the added problem with this approach that in reality, we have very little control of what enters our consciousness.
I really hope that these suppression skills proposed are effective, as we need more easily accessible tools to help improve our collective mental health.
However, I’d just thought I’d run through very quickly why I believe acceptance to be a key aspect to improve mental wellbeing add why this headline seems to be contrary to the skills I help people to build in sessions.
First up, we can’t really do anything to control the thoughts we have. They will enter our brain whether we like it or not. Sometimes this is triggered by an outside stimulus which we are aware of. Sometimes it may be from outside our consciousness, or an intrusive thought from out of the blue. These can feel strange, distressing, cause anxiety and sometimes even pleasure too!
Whilst we can’t do anything about the initial thoughts popping in, what we can do something about is what happens after they hit.
When we become aware of a thought, our brain leaps into action, wanting, demanding, trying to keep us safe or doing the wonderful things that brains do. Trapped in trying to solve the problem, we get enticed by this rumination and actively think, worry or fantasise.
Most of us don’t realise when we’re off ruminating and even if we do, we can spend a great deal of our time doing it anyway!
There is productive rumination and it helps us achieve many great things, however there are also thoughts that don’t help us and compound our difficulties. These tend to generate more fear and anxiety within, especially if we’re unable to solve the issue. Or, if we’ve been caught in a pleasant fantasy, we might not get anything done either!
By approaching this tendency to think or ruminate excessively as a behaviour, there is something we can do which I´ll run through now.
First, the thought pops in.
It’s alluring, enticing, terrifying, etc.
Perhaps you’re running through some of the “What if’s?” in you life?
Or it’s problem that you need to solve.
If you can develop the awareness to identify when you are worrying or ruminating excessively. You can then acknowledge it and make an active choice to defuse from the worry and connect with what’s actually going on with your life in the present. This will likely lead you towards improved mental health, rather than generating more anxiety.
This is certainly not the same as suppressing thoughts and becomes easier the more you practice this skill.
If this excessive rumination or worrying sounds like something that you’re experiencing regularly, start by identifying when you are ruminating. Then develop some mental defusion or mindfulness skills to detach from the thoughts and connect with the present moment.
This is acceptance, not suppression. In my experience, far more accessible and lot less work…