Here is a challenge: Don’t think about pizza for the next 20 seconds. How did you do? Chances are that you either worked hard not to think about pizza, with the thought at the back of your mind, or the thought about pizza continuously came into your mind. This is because research has repeatedly shown that suppressing unwanted thoughts does not work and can actually be counterproductive, leading one to have more of these thoughts and increasing the risk of mental health disorders.
A thought is just a thought.
A recent study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that when we acknowledge a thought rather than trying to push it away and then we shift our attention to something else, that gnawing thought is less likely to return. In fact, this study found that attempting to suppress unwanted thoughts can lead to an increase in having these thoughts! These findings contribute insights into how our minds work and may help individuals struggling with anxiety and depression learn how to manage the negative rumination better. That is, letting it be—and then letting it go.
Typically, when we encounter thoughts that we do not like, we use some creative strategies to not think about these thoughts. Distraction is a common way to take our mind off unwanted and negative thoughts and feelings. For example, watching television, browsing the internet, or turning to food or gambling. Using substances to “numb” the pain or harming one self is another form of distraction from painful thoughts and feelings. Other times, we may opt out of activities that usually bring us joy for fear that these activities will bring up discomfort.
At the end of the day, all of these strategies are attempts at pushing these negative thoughts and feelings away, and they may work in the short term. But what about the long term? Both research and clinical practice would respond with “heck no.” What happens when we push our thoughts away is an ongoing struggle, like that feeling we get when we try not to scratch a mosquito bite!
Experiential avoidance and mental health
Experiential avoidance is a psychological term that may be defined as attempts to avoid, suppress, or alter unwanted or negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. In short, it is that “push away” of the unwanted, and it may be seen as falling on the other end of the continuum from acceptance.
A growing body of research shows the effectiveness of practicing acceptance or “letting go” in contributing to mental well-being. The ability to simply notice a thought and acknowledge it (“I am having the thought that…”) builds resilience. This research has been conducted in children, youth, parents, and adults in general.
For instance, a recent study examining numerous research on this topic found that this ability to let go significantly reduces anxiety and depression in children. Another interesting study examined the role that experiential avoidance plays within a stressful parenting situation. This study explored mothers’ experience of (or avoidance of) difficult thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations following preterm birth and having their infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The researchers found that experiential avoidance partially mediated the relationship between NICU stress and post-discharge functioning (eg, traumatic stress symptoms).
Those who have read or watched the Harry Potter series may recall the part where Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermoine, are trapped in the Devil’s Snare, which is a magical plant that constricts or strangles anything in its surrounding area. While the initial reaction is to fight the plant and try to escape (while panicking), the trick to getting out of the Devil’s Snare is actually to just stay still. This is counterintuitive—“relax” while being trapped and strangled by a plant? Yet, in the end, this is the way out and onward. In life, there are many such “coils” that may come our way, making it hard to breathe and painful to accept. There is no question that it is more challenging to stay with difficult thoughts and emotions than to avoid them. In the end, the only way out is through.
In her recent poetry chapbook, Anna Veprinska shared a poem reflection of a lesson learned during the pandemic. She summed up the answer to a student’s question “How do we deal with grief?” as this: “I think it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to align yourself with sorrow.” In the end, however, we must not forget about the laughter too. It is important not to get “stuck” in these negative experiences but, rather, let them be. Remembering to take a moment to feel what we may be feeling, to let in the thoughts we are thinking, and to notice our bodily sensations is an important component of mental wellness.