Solange Castro Belcher promised herself that she wouldn't think about french fries. She was trying to lose a few pounds, and the one indulgence sure to derail her diet was a trip to the Golden Arches. Funny thing, though: The more Belcher, 29, tried not to think about fries, the more often they appeared in her thoughts. "I was always pushing it out of my mind, but it kept popping back up," says the Web-site editor, who lives in Marina Del Rey, Calif. "It was almost becoming an obsession!" Before she knew it, she was placing her order at the drive-through window.
Many of us have had an experience like Belcher's. Whether it's french fries, a guy you're trying to get over or a bad situation at work, it can seem that your efforts to get rid of unwanted thoughts are worse than useless.
"Our studies on thought suppression have found that the more you try not to think about something, the more you become preoccupied with that thought," says Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts (Viking Penguin, 1989). Wegner calls this the "rebound effect," and says it occurs because of the particular way our minds work.
When stressed, you obsess
When you tell yourself, "Don't think about chocolate," you may have every intention of not thinking about the yummy stuff. But somewhere in the back of your head, you're always checking to see how you're doing -- "Am I thinking about chocolate?" -- and that constant mental monitoring helps keep the thought present. When Wegner instructed his study subjects not to think about a white bear, for example, they worked so hard at banishing the image that soon a white bear was all they could think about.
And here's the really bad news: You may be least able to dismiss a thought when you most need to -- that is, when you're feeling down or stressed out. Actively trying not to think of something is hard work for our brains, and when our mental energy is low, it's especially hard to keep a forbidden thought under wraps.
"If you're really tired, or distracted, or under some kind of time pressure, you're more vulnerable to having unwanted thoughts intrude," says Ralph Erber, Ph.D., an authority on thought suppression and a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago. The reappearance of these thoughts, in turn, makes you feel even more anxious or depressed.
Denial doesn't work
Thought suppression can affect your mental state in other ways too. In an effort to avoid the taboo topic, you may become maniacally busy or preoccupied. That's especially true if you're trying not to think about something important, like a recent breakup. "So many things may be related to the lost relationship that we don't think deeply about anything at all," says James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas and an expert on emotional expression.
In order to hurry up and get over the loss, we're likely to grasp at superficial or self-blaming explanations for why it happened. If we don't allow ourselves to think about the relationship and its ending, we won't be able to sort out and work through the issues they involve.
Thought suppression, after all, can be a kind of denial -- if you don't think about a negative event, maybe it never really happened. The problem with this strategy is that you can't fool your brain: It'll keep bringing up thoughts of the event until you face them head on.
Trying to keep emotional issues at bay can even damage your health. Suppression is tough on the body as well as the mind, and "over time it gradually undermines the body's defenses, affecting immune function, the action of the heart and vascular systems, and the biochemical workings of the brain and nervous systems," writes Pennebaker in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (Guilford, 1997).
Six obsession-busting ideas
These steps offer a way out of the thought-suppression trap:
Remove thought triggers from view. A trigger is any object that might bring to mind the unwanted thought, such as a gift your ex gave you. When it comes to these objects, out of sight is out of mind.
Try new things. Even if you only change the place where you get your morning coffee or the gym you go to after work, you are less likely to encounter familiar cues. Taking up a new hobby, making a new friend or going on a trip may also help.
Distract yourself -- the right way. We often try to divert ourselves with objects plucked from our immediate surroundings (looking out the window, staring at a crack in the ceiling). But in doing so, the things we see all the time become "contaminated" by the thought we're trying to avoid. A better strategy is to choose a distracter: Pick one image to summon to mind when unwelcome thoughts intrude: a vision of a sun-drenched beach, for example.
Get absorbed in a task. "We've found that if you give people a task that is difficult in a way that is interesting, it takes care of a lot of their intrusive thoughts," says De Paul's Ralph Erber. He gives his subjects math problems or word games, but the idea applies to any activity that genuinely engages you -- rock climbing, reading, cooking a gourmet meal. Sports and exercise are especially good, because they add the physical benefits of relaxation to the mental rewards of absorption.
Express yourself. If you can't seem to stop thinking about a fight you had with your boyfriend or a remark made by your mother, it's time to express those thoughts. It may seem counterintuitive to dwell on the very subject you are trying to escape, but the important difference is that you are choosing when and where to address it, instead of having it sneak up on you. In a conversation with a friend or in a writing session with your journal, explore the painful event and its meaning in your life.
Recognize when you're fatigued or stressed and that you need to rest. When you are relaxed and well rested, you will have better ways of dealing with problems than trying to push them aside.
If you're seriously bothered by recurrent thoughts that you just can't get rid of, you may want to seek help from a professional counselor.
As for Belcher, she's figured out that when she doesn't push away thoughts of french fries, they actually come less frequently. When the notion occurs to her now, she turns her mind to her favorite distracter -- the screenplay she's working on -- or heads out the door for a quick run. Her "obsession" has subsided, and now she can drive right past the local fast-food joint -- without a second thought.
Thought suppression & weight loss: your do's and don'ts
Although many diet plans and books suggest suppressing thoughts of food, "everything that we know about thought suppression suggests that it won't work, and indeed, there's a decent chance that it will make things worse," says psychologist Peter Herman, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto in Canada. Herman is the author of "Mental Control of Eating: Excitatory and Inhibitory Food Thoughts," a chapter in a 1993 book on mental control edited by Harvard's Daniel Wegner, Ph.D.
Don't push away thoughts of food when you're trying to lose weight. According to Herman, "our studies show that attempting to suppress food thoughts makes dieters feel hungrier and think about food more. It also makes them crave a favorite food more, eat that food sooner when they can, and eat more of it than they would have otherwise."
Don't skip meals. Dieters who are hungry are especially likely to try to suppress thoughts of food -- making those thoughts even more intrusive.
Do eat moderate portions of food you like. When you're not hungry, and when you don't have to push away thoughts of forbidden foods, you're less likely to obsess.
Do be aware that pushing aside thoughts of food will get harder and harder. Because thought suppression is only successful in the short run, and because the last few pounds may be the most difficult to lose, suppressing food thoughts becomes harder the longer you diet. Herman believes it's best not to diet at all, but to eat mostly moderate amounts of healthy foods and to exercise regularly. It's what you do habitually that counts.