Research by Trinity alumna Dr Zulkayda Mamat showing that suppressing negative thoughts can improve mental health has challenged the Freudian imperative to talk about our worst fears and received global media coverage.
For the research, part of her PhD in the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr Mamat drew on her experience growing up in north-west China and witnessing the resilience of Uighurs in the diaspora after she emigrated.
I saw many Uighurs around me crumble into depression due to atrocities caused by the ongoing genocide as well as others who have experienced unspeakable abuses but healed themselves through resilience. So I always kept my people in my heart and mind as I worked towards something that can hopefully help some people overcome this hidden pandemic of mental illness.
Dr Mamat conducted the research with Professor Michael Anderson, Programme Leader of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge. Their findings counter conventional wisdom, inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud in the early twentieth century, that attempting to suppress negative thoughts and memories is ineffective and worse harmful, serving only to worsen mental health problems.
Professor Anderson said:
The whole point of psychotherapy is to dredge up these thoughts so one can deal with them and rob them of their power. In more recent years, we’ve been told that suppressing thoughts is intrinsically ineffective and that it actually causes people to think the thought more – it’s the classic idea of ‘Don’t think about a pink elephant’.
This Freudian-inspired approach is embedded in clinical treatment and national guidelines today, he said.
Professor Anderson and Dr Mamat were galvanized by the impact of the COVID pandemic on people’s mental health and their interest in how a mechanism in the brain – known as inhibitory control – might be applied to memory retrieval.
Dr Mamat said:
Because of the pandemic, we were seeing a need in the community to help people cope with surging anxiety. There was already a mental health crisis, a hidden epidemic of mental health problems, and this was getting worse. So with that backdrop, we decided to see if we could help people cope better.
They wanted to test whether training in thought suppression would improve mental health – i.e. whether inhibitory control could stop the retrieval of negative thoughts when confronted with powerful reminders.
120 people from 16 countries undertook three days of online training to suppress fearful or neutral thoughts. In ‘Improving mental health by training the suppression of unwanted thoughts,’ in Sciences Advances, the authors write: ‘No paradoxical increases in fears occurred. Instead, suppression reduced memory for suppressed fears and rendered them less vivid and anxiety provoking. After training, participants reported less anxiety, negative affect, and depression with the latter benefit persisting at 3 months.’
Participants with high levels of pandemic-related post-traumatic stress and anxiety gained most from the training.
Although participants were not required to continue practising the technique, many of them chose to do so after the research ended. When Dr Mamat contacted the participants after three months, she found that the benefits in terms of reduced levels of depression and negative emotions continued for all participants and were most pronounced among those who had continued to use the technique in their daily lives.
Dr Mamat said:
The follow up was my favourite time of my entire PhD, because every day was just joyful. I didn’t have a single participant who told me ‘Oh, I feel bad’ or ‘This was useless’. I didn’t prompt them or ask ‘Did you find this helpful?’ They were just automatically telling me how helpful they found it.’
Professor Anderson said: ‘What we found runs counter to the accepted narrative. Although more work will be needed to confirm the findings, it seems like it is possible and could even be potentially beneficial to actively suppress our fearful thoughts.’
Read more: Mamat, Z, and Anderson, MC. Improving Mental Health by Training the Suppression of Unwanted Thoughts. Sci Adv; 20 Sept 2023.