A new study suggests that suppressing negative experiences could improve mental health. We take a look at why psychotherapy is still an important part of your toolkit
Contrary to the common belief that bottling up emotions is harmful to our mental health, Cambridge University has now called this idea into question. In a study published in Science Advances, conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, a pool of 120 participants was analysed to see whether, in fact, training thought suppression techniques could actually improve wellbeing.
Thought suppression has generally been considered a maladaptive behaviour when it comes to protecting our mental health. It stems from the Freudian teaching that suppressed thoughts sit in the unconscious mind, and resurface in other ways (normally through physical and/or emotional symptoms, or dreams, for example).
Don’t think about a pink elephant for the next minute...
The likelihood is that you’ve just started thinking about a pink elephant. This is commonly used by psychologists to exemplify that suppressing thoughts can only make them more intrusive.
To determine whether this technique might actually be effective, researchers hypothesised that training thought suppression would improve mental health among those with depression, anxiety and/or PTSD. Neuroscientists trained 60 volunteers around the world on how to block and forget distressing thoughts. A separate control group of 60 participants used the same technique to suppress neutral thoughts.
Following a three-month study, results revealed that those who suppressed negative thoughts saw an improvement in their mental health by an average of 10%. Their fears became less vivid, less intrusive and less anxiety-provoking, and they saw reduced feelings of depression. Those who suppressed neutral thoughts, however, experienced less improvement.
Given that the participant size was only 120 people worldwide, it’s clear that this research needs to be conducted with a significantly larger sample. Additionally, the study would benefit from longitudinal research, to determine whether suppression techniques are safe to use in the long term. What’s more, whilst there are some perceived benefits for those experiencing anxiety, depression and PTSD, we have to consider the use of this technique for other mental health issues.
It’s also key to highlight that the research should not “undermine the field of psychotherapy, but offer an alternative for people when expressing their thoughts in talking therapies is not working”, says neuroscientist, Zulkayda Mamat.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at why talking therapies are still crucial in supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing, and what you can do if you feel talking therapies aren’t working for you.
Why are talking therapies important?
Talking therapy, also known as psychotherapy is an effective way of processing and treating mental health issues. Some people find that it’s just as effective as medication, whilst others may use talking therapies alongside other treatments. Many people find talking to a stranger easier than speaking to friends or family.
In her article, ‘What to do when intrusive thoughts come to mind’, integrative counsellor, Lyn Reed comments, “It is also true that suppressing our thoughts does not work. This often results in 'thought rebound'. The thoughts we are trying to push away just come back bigger and bolder than before. Therapy can help us to tackle our intrusive thinking.”
Talking therapy can be useful for a number of mental health issues, including:
- easting disorders
- bipolar disorder
It can also be useful to talk to a professional after life events such as bereavement, losing a job or struggling with infertility.
There are many benefits to talking therapies, and they can form an important part of your toolkit when it comes to looking after your mental health. Some examples of talking therapies include:
- cognitive behavioural therapy
- mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
- eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
What if talking therapies aren’t working for me?
There are a number of reasons why talking therapies may not work out for you in the way you had hoped. Perhaps you don’t feel entirely comfortable with the relationship between you and your therapist or the type of therapy isn’t quite the right fit.
Some people may feel uncomfortable about being in a therapy room. Fortunately, there are a variety of options when it comes to seeking therapy. If traditional counselling doesn’t feel right for you, you may find the following more appropriate:
- Group therapy can provide a support network and help you to meet new people going through similar experiences. All information is confidential, just like in a one-to-one session.
- For people that find counselling rooms claustrophobic or prefer to chat side-on, rather than face-to-face, walk and talk therapy is a great option that also combines the benefits of being outdoors.
- If you struggle to express how you’re feeling in words, art therapies may be particularly appealing. Expressing thoughts through drama, art, dance and music can be very beneficial and offer a creative outlet.
- A number of therapists offer remote sessions, which can be done online, over Zoom, for example, over the phone and even via text message. If you feel you’d be more comfortable in your own home, this is another option to consider.
It’s really important that, whatever you choose to do to support your mental health, it works for you. Suppressing emotions may work for some people, but it’s clearly not a catch-all approach.
If psychotherapy is something that you feel you’d benefit from, you can find a therapist on Happiful using our filtered search – be sure you browse a few profiles so you can find a therapist you connect with. And, if you don’t find that match, know that you can step away from that relationship at any time.
Finally, remember that mental health support is multifaceted. What works for one person might not work for you, and that’s OK.
Learn more about the different approaches to wellbeing on our new podcast, Finding What Works.