Have you ever tried to change a habit? Maybe tried to start losing weight by not thinking about food? Have you tried to play the cool one and not call—or email or text—a romantic interest by blocking out your thoughts about that person? How about trying to stop smoking by trying not to think about smoking?
Did it work? I’ll bet it didn’t. But it’s really not your fault.
In spite of it being a double-edged sword, thought suppression is a very commonly used strategy. People try again and again to block out or put the lid on unwanted thoughts and feelings, trying to limit the influence those thoughts have on their lives. People trying to lose weight attempt to suppress thoughts of yummy snacks, while alcoholics try to suppress their desire to drink. Stressed-out workers do what they can to suppress their feelings of anxiety, and frustrated smokers labor to suppress thoughts of cigarettes when trying to quit.
But thought suppression is very problematic, only briefly works, and can have unintended consequences. Suppression has actually been shown to increase the frequency of the thoughts you were trying to rid yourself of. Imagine I say “don’t think about purple elephants.” Guess what comes immediately to your mind? Once the period of active suppression is over, say if you try to repress thoughts of smoking, the thoughts will likely come rushing back with even greater power once you let your guard down. And believe me, you will eventually let your guard down. But does the soon-to- follow unintended consequence actually lead to more smoking? Does this method leave you worse off, and farther from quitting for good, than when you started?
In short, YES.
Yes. In a new study, undergraduates who smoked, on average, at least half a pack of cigarettes each day were asked to keep track of their smoking habits for several weeks. During the second week, some of the students were asked to suppress any and all thoughts about smoking. These students smoked significantly fewer cigarettes during this week than the non-suppressing participants. During the third week of the study however, when the students were no longer asked to suppress thoughts of smoking, they smoked appreciably more cigarettes than the non-suppressors. Some method.
The researchers who led the study also scrutinized the students’ stress levels across all three weeks of the study. I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that the suppressors reported a measurable rise in their stress levels during the week they were suppressing their thoughts. The non-suppressors’ stress levels, interestingly enough, remained unchanged.
Not only did the thought-suppression strategy backfire, it felt terrible to the participants while doing it.
What is the best way to successfully deal with unwanted thoughts in ways that don’t end up diminishing your willpower? Here are two coaching suggestions:
Don’t suppress them—replace them.
Decide beforehand what you are going to think about when a thought or desire about smoking, snacking, or hitting “redial” explodes into your head. When you find yourself thinking about how yummy a candy bar would be right now, try replacing that thought with one that focuses on your health and weight-loss goals (e.g.,”It feels better to fit into my jeans than it does to throw back a slice of chocolate-covered cake”).
Creating an “if-then” plan really is a more effective way to deal with temptations. You don’t need to block your thoughts out; the skill you need to develop is learning how not to act on them. By planning in advance exactly what you will do when the tempting thought occurs, it will be far easier to stick to your goals and create that new habit. For example, when you think about putting that cigarette in your mouth, plan to chew gum or step outside for several long deep breaths of fresh air. No matter what your plan is, it really doesn’t matter; it will disrupt the connection between the thought and giving in to the temptation. Give it about five seconds and the thought will pass. Over time, the thoughts will fade on their own.
It’s almost never a good idea to try to put a lid on your thoughts and feelings. The strategy might seem like it’s working in the short term, but you’ll quickly find yourself right back where you started—surrounded by candy wrappers, cigarette butts, or empty beer cans, and wondering why your last date hasn’t returned your three dozen phone calls.
Are your own habits giving you hell these days? If that’s the case, there are options out there for you.
If your answer is a big yes, give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a free call and tell me about it.
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