Hidden Complications of Thought Suppression

Although the suppression of thoughts may seem to be an effective solution when thoughts are unwanted, this strategy can lead to a recurrence of the very thought that one is attempting to suppress. This ironic effect is the most obvious unwanted outcome of suppression and has been investigated empirically for more than two decades. However, even when suppression does not lead to an ironic rebound of the unwanted thought, it puts an insidious cognitive load on the individual attempting to suppress. Moreover, whether or not suppression leads to an exacerbation of the unwanted thought, it is rarely successful, and hence adds to the individual’s distress. In this article we describe the consequences of suppression and consider how it might complicate a range of emotional disorders. Taken together, studies on thought suppression in psychopathology present a more nuanced picture now than was emerging in the early years of its investigation. Some evidence is consistent with the idea that the counterproductive effects of suppression are causally implicated in disorders, but a more parsimonious conclusion is that thought suppression often acts as a complication of disorders. In certain disorders, suppression complicates the disorder by leading to an ironic rebound of the unwanted thoughts. In all disorders, the cost of undertaking suppression is a persistent cognitive load, which undermines the ability to suppress and sets off a cycle of failed expectations and distress.
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