Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner did a study
on the effects of thought suppression.
Result: the more you attempt to suppress a thought, the more it will persist.
To read the interview with professor Wegner and about the study, click the Harvard link below
Here is a snippet from it...
"People who chronically use conscious thought suppression as a strategy for coping with distressing thoughts are more likely than others to be anxious and depressed and report symptoms of OCD. This link between suppression and the severity of psychological symptoms is common in other disorders as well. For example, people who report engaging in self-mutilation or self-harm are more likely than others to engage in thought suppression, and people who use thought suppression as a strategy for quitting smoking are more likely to experience return of thoughts about smoking when they are trying to quit. Children and adolescent victims of adolescent victims of traumatic accidents who report using though suppression are more likely than other accident victims to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Findings like these are evidence of an association between suppression and increases in the intensity of psychological disorders, but they cannot be interpreted to mean that suppression causes the amplification of disorders. In fact, experimental studies to test this idea could be unethical-the predicted effect of instructing people to suppress could possibly make a disorder worse! But an opposite strategy is ethically quite acceptable: In studies of what happens when people are encouraged to relax their attempts to suppress thoughts, researchers have reported the expected causal relationship: When people in psychotherapy are led to accept their symptoms and face the thoughts they've been striving to avoid, they can experience noteworthy alleviations of the symptoms of the disorder [for example Marcks, B.A., & Woods, D.W. (2005) A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: A controlled evaluation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 433-445.]."
So people that are asking themselves how to:
be Quitting Smoking
Stop Over Eating
Stop Having Anxiety
Stop Thinking About Their Ex
are making it worse for themselves because they are looking to suppress something which causes their problem behaviour to be more on their mind.
Of course you can try this on for yourself right now.
Do your best to not think of polar bears.
Just to understand the command means bringing forth the idea of a polar bear and then telling yourself not to do it.
So what's the solution?
The short answer:
A well formed outcome.
In other words, focus on the solution or what it is you do want.
The long answer:
James Prochaska Ph.D did a massive study about how people were able to change their lives around.
This was a lifetime of study that he devoted to understanding what it is people have in common that were able to turn their lives inside out and for the better. This led him to creating the Stages of Change Model.
What are these stages of change?
-no intention of changing behaviour
-intends to change in the next 6 months but may procrastinate
-intends to take action soon
-has changed behaviour for less than 6 months
- has changed behaviour for more than 6 months
- former problem behaviors are no longer perceived as desirable (e.g. skipping a run results in frustration rather than pleasure, having a cigarette leads to anger at wasting money and health, thinking of the ex leads to the realization of wasting time instead of focusing on personal/business/spiritual development.)
**The one major distinction that predicted all the progress from precontemplation through action was having a future that was more meaningful to them than the problem behaviour.**
When looking at the Prochaska Stages of Change or Quantum Change from Miller, the big commonality changers had was that they all had a well formed outcome.
If you haven't written out what you want as a well formed outcome you may want to start, especially if you have been finding yourself running on a behavioural program that is not serving you.
Computers work by being programmed what to do.
Not what not to do. So, if you were going to 'code' your own programming in a more intentional way, what is it you would prefer to be doing instead of the problem behaviour?
What would solving your challenge give you?
What else would it do for you really?
How would this new behaviour benefit you?
What else would you notice would change in your life by making this one transformational shift?
As you write these answers down, your brain will go in new directions, new neural pathways of possibilities can unfold which are a lot more empowering than seeking to not do the problem behaviour.
Imagine going to an airline to buy a plane ticket and telling them you want a flight to not Helsinki please.
It's akin to not thinking of polar bears or not thinking of smoking or not thinking of the negative situation.
That 'not' stuff just does not work.
Instead, find out what it is you do want and maintain efforts to guide your focus on the solution.
Doing so will systematically lead you in better directions, especially when you make the idea of the new behaviour sensory rich and dripping with incentive salience. The juicer the solution is, the more you are robustly infused with all the associations that come with it, the easier it is to go there.