On chocolate, Billy Ray Cyrus, and the futility of thought suppression

Imagine a tasty bit of chocolate. Imagine unwrapping it, and looking at it, anticipating what it is going to taste like. Now imagine placing it in your mouth and swirling it around, feeling it start to dissolve and become warm as you taste the sweetness spreading across your tongue. Allow yourself to linger on that thought, that taste, that flavor, for a few seconds before you read on. Now - stop thinking about chocolate. I am instructing you not to think about chocolate again until you get to the end of this article. If you think about chocolate. I want you to stop. Note that you have thought about chocolate but stop. You are not to think about chocolate.

The point of this little exercise is to understand how difficult it is for us to not think about something. I bet you've already thought about chocolate. If that's true, you are not alone. That's just how the mind works - the more we try not to think about something - or thought suppression - the more we end up thinking about it - this is called the ironic rebound effect. Think of an annoyingly catchy 80s pop song. Maybe, "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus. Go through the chorus a couple of times. Really imagine that mullet swinging in the breeze. Here, let me help - click below for the full experience

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byQIPdHMpjc&w=420&h=315]

Now, stop thinking about it. Yeah, right.

Sometimes, especially when we are trying to dismiss thoughts from our minds, it can feel like we aren't on the same team. Still have Billy Ray Cyrus running amok in your head? See what I mean - the more you try not to think about it, the more it is there. Even if you get practice suppressing the unwanted thought, that doesn't seem to work in the long-term either. Trying to push it to the back of your mind just - does - not - work. Thought suppression has behavioural impacts too. In one experiment, people asked not to think about chocolate ended up eating more chocolate when given the opportunity than those who weren't given the instruction to suppress the thought.

One theory to explain this is that we try to distract ourselves by intentionally thinking about something else. Secondly - and here comes the ironic bit -  out minds start an unconscious monitoring process to check if we are still thinking about the thing we are not supposed to be thinking about - you know, to check if our conscious process is working or not.  The problem comes when we consciously stop trying to distract ourselves and the unconscious process carries on looking out for the thing we are trying to suppress. Anything it sees that looks remotely like the target triggers the thought again and round we go in yet another loop of thinking the same thought we were desperately trying to forget about.

So, the irony of thought suppression, then, is that actively trying to manage our own minds can sometimes do more harm than good. 

What can we do?

  • The key is abandoning attempts to exert thought control and practicing acceptance instead. In a nutshell, acceptance is about allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are - regardless of it they are pleasant or painful, or just plain irritating.
  • Open up, make room for them, and drop the struggle with them. Let them come and go as they naturally do.
  • Distraction may work as a short-term solution, but in the long-term, practicing acceptance takes a lot less effort than constantly being on guard and fending off unwanted thoughts. As well as being a driving task, both mentally and physically. It just doesn't work.

Coaching conversations can help you practice acceptance - get in touch if I can help