Blocking Thoughts: Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It
- Blocking Thoughts: Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It
By Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.
Every one of us knows what it's like to be
plagued by an unpleasant or unwanted thought.
It could be a nagging self-doubt, a disturbing
story from the evening news or the humiliation
of being recently rejected by a potential love
interest. Try as you might to block it out, the
image or feeling pops up over and over again.
It makes you miserable and leaves you feeling
very much a virtual prisoner of your own cruel mind.
Most people believe that there really isn't much
you can do about it -- that on some level, these
thoughts must need to happen, and that trying to
block them out is pointless. The good news is that
most people are wrong. You absolutely can block
out painful, unwanted or counterproductive thoughts
if you are armed with the right strategies. And
I got a chance to put them to the test once again
very recently, when I shut the bathroom door on
the index finger of my 4-year old daughter Annika.
It was very, very bad. Her finger had been near
the hinge where the force was greatest, so the tip
was fractured and, the surgeon told me later,
nearly severed. Immediately after it happened,
I scooped up my shoeless daughter and her 2-year-old
brother, still in his pajamas, and ran out into
the New York City streets frantically searching
for a cab. We spent the next four hours in the ER.
By the time we got back to our apartment, Annika
was once again all smiles and sunshine. Her surgeon
had assured us that she would heal quickly and
that there would be no lasting damage. Remarkably,
she wasn't even in any pain. Once she was settled
in on the sofa with her dad and brother and a big
bowl of ice cream, I took the dog for a long walk
in the park and bawled my eyes out. (Thank goodness
New Yorkers avoid eye contact. Maybe nobody noticed.)
As terrible as it is as a parent to cope with any
injury to your child, there's a very special
kind of anguish in knowing that you were the
one who caused it.
Now, I knew perfectly well that it was an accident,
and that accidents happen to everyone (even neurotically
safety-obsessed moms like me). I knew that there
was really nothing to be gained from dwelling on
what happened. But the next day, even though Annika
was playful and pain-free, I still felt awful. From
moment to moment, I cycled through the hit parade
of negative emotions: guilt, anxiety, depression,
self-loathing. I couldn't enjoy playing with my
children, I couldn't concentrate on anything. I
couldn't even feel the joy and relief that you'd
have thought I would feel knowing that my daughter
was happy and on the mend.
The problem was that memories of what happened
kept popping up in my mind. I would see the terror
in her eyes, remember my own panic and struggle
to stay calm, relive the moment where I had started
to close the door and wish I had just looked down
to see her standing there. I knew that I was going to
continue to feel terrible unless I could rid myself
of these unwanted, painful thoughts. Fortunately,
I knew just what to do.
Blocking out (or "suppressing") a thought is
challenging, because a blocked thought tends to
rebound -- in other words, it can come back later
with a vengeance once you've let your guard down.
The most well-known account of why rebounding
happens comes from ironic monitoring theory. The
idea is that while you are blocking out a thought
(for instance, trying to rid yourself of thoughts
of "white bears"), part of your brain is actively
searching for any thoughts of white bears so it can
immediately shut them down.
That active search creates an ironic effect --
it makes white bear thoughts more accessible, so
that once you let your guard down and stop blocking,
the thoughts come rushing back. Now all you can
think about is white bears.
For a long time, psychologists believed that
allowing yourself to go ahead and think about
white bears was the only solution; eventually,
since your brain wasn't on the lookout for these
thoughts and actively trying to block them anymore,
they would fade. But thoughts can be blocked,
without rebounding. To do that, there are two things
you need to know.
First, remember that blocking a thought is always
a bit difficult, no matter what the thought is.
But just because it's hard, that does not mean
that, on some level, you need to think that
particular thought. Your brain doesn't necessarily
have a hidden agenda. The real irony is that believing
that it does is actually what creates rebound! In
other words, you will continue to be haunted by a
thought if you give the difficulty you have blocking
it out more meaning and importance than it deserves.
In fact, in a series of studies, psychologists Jens
Foerster and Nira Liberman found that if they
explained to people in advance, before they blocked
out a thought, that it is always difficult to block
any thought, there was no rebounding whatsoever.
Blocked thoughts actually stayed blocked. The white
bears never returned.
So the first step to blocking an unwanted thought
is really embracing the idea that you don't really
need to think it.
Second, you need a strategy for handling the thought
when it does come. A good if-then plan is just
what the doctor ordered for coping with unwanted
thoughts and disruptive feelings.
The key is to plan out, in advance what you will
do when the thought pops up in your mind. It can
be as simple as saying to yourself, "If the thought
comes, then I will ignore it." Some may prefer to
replace the unwanted thought or feeling with a more
positive one. In one study, tennis players who constantly
were plagued by pre-match anxiety and self-doubt
these thoughts with the plan, "If I doubt myself,
then I will remember all the times I've won in
For me, the plan, "If I think about the accident,
then I will picture Annika's smiling face when
it was all over," was amazingly effective. As I
practiced it over and over again throughout the
day, whenever those terrible visions paid a visit,
I felt their power over me melting away. Their
visitations grew less and less frequent. I was able
to feel happy again and see that my little girl
had long since forgiven me for what had happened.
It finally felt OK to start forgiving myself, too.
Now, I am not saying that we should go around
blocking out all the unpleasant thoughts that come
our way. There are times when we do truly need to
reflect on the bad things that happen to us, to
understand their significance, to come to terms
with our feelings, and to learn and grow from our
experiences. But when there really isn't anything
to be gained from reflection -- when a thought
simply prolongs pain -- it's good to know that
there really is a way to rid yourself of it and move on.
J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.
S. Koole & A. van Knippenberg (2007) Controlling your mind without ironic consequences: Self-affirmation eliminates rebound effects after thought suppression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 671-677.
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