Why Trying to Ignore Upsetting Thoughts Only Makes The Worry or Anxiety Worse

24/01/2013 00:38 | Updated 25 March 2013

If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder - such as health anxiety, social phobia, generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder - or are just plain worried, you are likely to be plagued by anxiety-provoking, 'intrusive thoughts'. These commonly include things like:

-Everyone can tell how anxious I am (social phobia).

-If I don't keep checking the cooker, the house will set on fire (OCD).

-I just know I will get cancer eventually (health anxiety).

-If I don't worry about the family all the time, who will? (generalised anxiety disorder).

You might also be troubled by intrusive images, which is especially common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Images are more emotionally laden and often more powerful than the verbal thoughts above, so a visual flashback of the traumatic incident you went through can bring all the emotions associated with it flooding back. So it's entirely natural to try and force these intrusive thoughts or images from your mind, perhaps by distracting yourself or, in the case of OCD, 'neutralising' them by carrying out a ritual like checking or washing.

Unfortunately, although thought suppression is both natural and completely understandable, it actually makes the problem worse. That's because when we try to suppress a thought, rather than getting rid of it, we make it stronger - a process known as 'thought rebounding'. Try this simple experiment to see how this works for yourself:

-For the next 60 seconds, I want you to think of anything at all, but do not think about green polar bears. Whatever you do, don't think about green polar bears... keep thinking, about ANYTHING but green polar bears...

So, what happened? My strong hunch is that a certain large furry animal kept popping into your mind. So ask yourself this - have you ever thought about green polar bears before? I'm guessing not. So, ironically, it was only because you were trying so hard NOT to think about one that you did. A perfect example of how thought suppression leads to thought rebounding.

Instead of trying to suppress those upsetting thoughts, you need to learn how to either process the traumatic experience you are trying so hard to forget (especially with PTSD), learn how to modify unhelpful beliefs or behaviours, or use mindfulness techniques to change your relationship to the thoughts themselves, so you can simply notice them and then let them go.

There are lots of good books on the subject, including a number in the Overcoming... series of CBT self-help books (Overcoming Health Anxiety, Overcoming OCD, Overcoming Anxiety, and so on) or find a qualified CBT therapist near you.

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