‘Thought Suppression’ Has Nothing to Do with Rumination, so Why Does It Feel like You Can’t Stop?

Let’s start with a thought exercise: Imagine you were solving a complicated math problem, and I asked you to stop. Would you have trouble stopping? You would not. Keep this in mind as you read on.

‘Thought suppression’ and ‘the rebound effect’ refer to the idea that sometimes trying not to think about something causes you to think about it more. Sometimes people mistakenly think that this issue applies to rumination, and that if they try to stop ruminating, it will cause them to ruminate more. This is not the case because the ideas of ‘thought suppression’ and ‘the rebound effect’ don’t apply to analytical thinking, which is the type of thinking involved in compulsive rumination. This is the same reason that you trying to stop solving a complicated math problem doesn’t cause you to somehow solve it more.

To illustrate the phenomenon of ‘thought suppression’ and the ‘rebound effect’, therapists will often ask patients to close their eyes and try not to think about a pink elephant (or a white bear); typically the patient will end up thinking about it as a result of trying not to.

To demonstrate that ‘thought suppression’ and the ‘rebound effect’ are irrelevant to analytical thinking, I created an exercise that I call Pink Elephant Chapter 2. The first part of this exercise is the same as the classic one: Close your eyes and try not to think about a pink elephant. As we all know, this will probably get you thinking about a pink elephant.

But now let’s try something new: Close your eyes again, and this time analyze the pink elephant in every way you can. Analyze its skin, its face, its tail; rotate it and look at it from every angle; imagine how it smells and feels.

Now stop. Close your eyes again, and try not to analyze the pink elephant at all.

I bet that while you were doing this, the pink elephant came into your mind a bunch, but that you were able to refrain from analyzing it. As this exercise illustrates, you can choose not to analyze something; trying to stop analyzing doesn’t cause you to analyze more.

The erroneous idea that ‘thought suppression’ and ‘the rebound effect’ apply to rumination has done immeasurable harm to people with OCD: It has perpetuated patients’ belief that they cannot and should not stop ruminating. In reality, the opposite is true: Not only can you stop ruminating, doing so is an essential step toward getting better.

So if ‘thought suppression’ doesn’t apply to rumination, why is it so hard to stop? To answer this question, let’s return to the thought experiment with which we started: Imagine, again, that you were solving a complicated math problem. But this time, imagine that someone were holding a gun to your head, saying, “Solve it or I shoot.”

As this thought experiment illustrates, The reason it feels like you can’t stop ruminating isn’t because you cognitively can’t. It’s because you’re afraid that if you stop, you might allow something bad to happen; in addition, you’ve probably spent a long time justifying the rumination, imagining that it was necessary in order to prevent something bad from happening. In other words, the same issues that make it hard to refrain from any other compulsion — namely, fear and justification — are what make it hard to refrain from rumination.

Because of fear and justification, you end up trying to do two mutually exclusive things at the same time: On the one hand, you try to refrain from ruminating because it’s distressing and exhausting, and because at this point you understand that it’s a compulsion; but on the other hand you keep ruminating because you’re trying to prevent something terrible from happening.

You’re thus ruminating on purpose, while trying to stop. It’s like trying to drop a ball while holding onto it as tightly as you can.

You will not be able to stop ruminating until you make a clear decision to stop. In order to do this, you have to identify and address your justifications.