The benefits of repression

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According to Sigmund Freud, suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not the best strategy for staying healthy. A new study conducted during the COV pandemic disagrees: according to it, those who actively repress fears and worries are less anxious and worried afterwards.
“That clinical psychology views thought suppression negatively is due to Freud’s historical viewpoint that suppressed content persists and affects us unconsciously,” Zulkayda Mamat and Michael Anderson of the University of Cambridge write in the study, which just appeared in the journal Science Advances. It is a viewpoint they want to change, and in doing so, they will be confronted with the contradictions of various psychological traditions.

Repression vs. suppression
This begins with the choice of terms: Freud’s “repression” was translated into English as “repression” and then made it back into German. Except for a historical reference to Freud, this term does not appear in the current study; instead, the author uses “suppression” interchangeably to mean repression and suppression. The two terms are related in content, but they also differ. According to Sigmund Freud, repression is an unconscious defense mechanism that pushes negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences out of consciousness. However, these can return to the surface through detours like dreams or illness symptoms. Repression is a “normal” process but can also make people ill. A meta-analysis from 2012, for example, concluded that “good repressors” have a higher risk of cancer and high blood pressure.

Harmful emotion suppression, on the other hand, happens on purpose, deliberately, and consciously – and it was this activity that study author Michael Anderson investigated in experiments beginning in 2001. He put aside the unconscious moments of Repression and had the participants practice Repression consciously. Repression can be learned, as was the title of a science.ORF.at article at the time. More than 20 years later, Anderson continues this line of thought and concludes: Suppressing negative thoughts is not only learnable, he says, but can also have a very positive effect on the psyche and, thus, on general well-being.

“But we’re not talking about simply distracting oneself from negative thoughts because they often come back. In our study, it was more a matter of actively dealing with negative thoughts and scenarios and training oneself not to think about them. So you deal with the negative topic more closely,” doctoral student Zulkayda Mamat explained to Science.ORF.at.

Pandemic of psychological problems
As part of the study, Mamat and Anderson recruited 120 subjects from 16 countries and conducted various tests with them. The starting point was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Mamat wanted to find out whether suppressing negative thoughts also affected the subjects’ mental health during this terrifying time for many people. “There was a crisis at that time regarding mental health, and with it, a hidden pandemic of mental health problems was worsening. So we wanted to clarify whether we could help people cope better with this difficult time,” Mamat said.

All 120 subjects were asked to imagine different scenarios, including 20 negative “fears and worries” that preoccupied them during the study period, 20 optimistic “hopes and dreams,” and 36 neutral situations that occur in everyday life but are unrelated to any specific emotion. “Particularly with the negative scenarios, it was important that it was something that was particularly on the individuals’ minds and concerns at the time,” Mamat said. As a result, many of the negative scenarios painted had something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A pessimistic scenario was, for example, visiting parents or grandparents hospitalized because of the COVID-19 illness. Mamat, on the other hand, cites his sister’s wedding as an example of an optimistic scenario, and a visit to the optician or doing the weekly shopping, for example, were considered neutral events.

Training for targeted suppression
The subjects then had to evaluate the fictitious scenarios, considering several factors. These included things like the likelihood of the situation occurring when it might occur, the vividness of their thoughts on the subject, how much fear or joy they felt when thinking about the scenarios, and how often they thought about the situation in general. They also had to fill out several questionnaires about their mental health.

In several 20-minute online sessions, the subjects were trained for three days to suppress the scenarios they had previously thought up. One group was to stop the negative situations, and another group was to use the neutral ones for comparison.

At the end of the third day and three months later, the subjects were asked to evaluate the scenarios and complete new questionnaires about their mental health.

It is more harmless and less depressing.
It turned out that those who rated the negative scenarios as significantly less dangerous, which they had previously explicitly banned from their minds several times, were substantially more harmless. “The painted-out events were much less scary and depressing for these individuals afterward, and their mental health and well-being generally improved,” Mamat said. “We saw the biggest effects in subjects who were already struggling with their mental health at the beginning of the study and who already had mental health issues.”

The positive effects of targeted suppression were still evident at the three-month follow-up. Most subjects reported thinking about the frightening scenarios much less frequently, and writing improved mental health, particularly for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the pandemic. In contrast, there was no evidence that, in the spirit of Freud’s repression, the suppressed thoughts eventually caught up with them.

“Active suppression is potentially beneficial.”
“Our findings directly contradict common assumptions about repression,” explains Mamat, who adds: “Although more research is needed in the area, it seems quite likely that actively suppressing negative thoughts is potentially beneficial.”

Still, the doctoral student says it’s important to clarify that suppressing negative thoughts is useless in every situation. “For example, if it’s about anxiety that I can do something about, such as confrontation therapy or similar techniques commonly used in psychotherapy, that probably does more good than suppressing thoughts about it. However, if it is about something I have no control over, such as a pandemic, suppressing negative thoughts can potentially help me.”

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