‘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 ‘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 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.

But if you were planning a trip, doing a math problem, or trying to remember the details of a conversation, and I asked you to stop, could you do it?  The answer is yes.  You can’t stop a thought from occurring to you, but you can indeed control your thinking about it.

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 does it feel 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 primary reason it feels like you can’t stop ruminating isn’t because you cognitively can’t.  It’s because you’re terrified.

Even though there’s a part of you that’s trying to stop ruminating, there’s another part of you that is afraid of what will happen if you don’t ‘figure it out.’  You’re trying to do two mutually exclusive things at the same time.  It’s like you’re trying to drop a ball while holding onto it as tightly as you can.

Thus, the main reason you feel as though you can’t stop ruminating is probably because you haven’t made a clear decision to stop, not because of ‘thought suppression.’

Please note that this article is for your information only and does not constitute clinical advice or establish a patient-psychologist relationship.