It’s your turn for a presentation and all you can think about is your fidgeting leg, the cold sinking feeling in your chest and literally everything that could go wrong.
Or it’s time for a diet, but the very food you’d like to avoid the most keeps magically popping up in your head throughout the day.
There’s a term for this - the ironic process theory, ironic rebound or the ‘white bear’ problem. The more you try to suppress a thought – say the image of a white bear, the more it appears in your mind. Dr Laxmi Saranya, clinical psychologist at Dubai-based Modern Polyclinic says, “It’s like being told, ‘For two minutes, do not think of a red rose.' Your brain will actually remember all the associations with red rose in your life – whether in a garden, in a bouquet…
The more you try to suppress a thought – say the image of a white bear, the more it appears in your mind. It’s like being told, ‘For two minutes, do not think of a red rose.
“Our brain has an innate capacity to associate stimuli with different things in our daily life. There are more than 60,000 thoughts per day, based on our different experiences and sensory modalities in our real life – what we see, touch and feel. Even though you say that you don’t want to think – you are definitely going through the same pathway.”
What happens in the brain? The social psychologist behind the concept, Daniel Wegner, suggested that in the brain, even as there is a command to suppress the thought, another automatic process constantly checks to see if you’ve failed this task… which ironically brings you back to the thought. Less than ideal, wouldn’t you say?
Countering with the ‘blue dolphin’
Inspired by a quote by famed Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, back in the 1980s, Wegner had led pioneering research in this area of thought suppression at Harvard University.
Two groups of 17 undergraduate students were assigned tasks – for the first, to try not to think of a white bear while reporting to a tape recorder ‘everything that comes to mind’ for five minutes. If they did end up thinking of a bear, they had to ring a bell each time. Then, for the next five minutes, they were asked to actively think about the white bear.
The second group had already been asked to think about white bears from the beginning. It turned out that the group that had been trying to suppress the image initially rang the ‘white bear’ bell more. So, trying to suppress the thought had a ‘rebound effect’ and made them think more of the subject than if they were free to think of it from the beginning!
Repeat scenario for second round, except there was also a third group with a new condition - “If you do happen to think of a white bear, please try to think of a red Volkswagen instead.” This helped reduce the rebound effect by decreasing the number of rings in the second part.
Justin Bariso, author of ‘EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence’, speaker and consultant in emotional intelligence, management and workplace culture, calls this the ‘blue dolphin’ rule. Instead of a white bear, a blue dolphin – a new image or point of focus.
However, it needs to be intriguing enough to completely shift your attention – in the study, they discuss that focusing on something small like a light switch could make you question, ‘What am I doing?’ and bring you right back to the thoughts you are trying to avoid.
Moreover, this doesn’t just have to be about negative or intrusive thoughts, this could be about preventing a decision that you know you will regret – for example, a binge-shopping temptation.
Immediately trying to focus on an alternative action can stop that train of thought in its tracks. For your presentation, that could be channeling your nervousness into telling yourself how excited you are, according to Bariso.
So, the next time you find yourself faced with an unwanted ‘white bear’? Focus on a ‘blue dolphin’ for a little.
The case against suppression
However, this advice is only for when you need a quick solution, such as when you’re in an interview or exam, studying and trying to focus. In the long term, Dr Saranya says, “Any anxiety has to be dealt by facing that fear. Suddenly, you can’t turn your negative cognitions into positive ones – unless you face it each time….
“Distraction is a very wrong method for those who have overthinking tendencies, or OCD, for example. If there’s an element of anxiety – it’s not good to distract and suppress it.
“When you think, I must not eat, or not having certain foods – sometimes you are filtering your thoughts based on different concepts.” In such cases, when there is an anxiety surrounding the matter, Dr Saranya recommends thinking about why instead of suppressing the thought.
Mindfulness can also help
“At the end of the day, we need control of what is happening in our lives,” says Dr Saranya. This also relates to your emotional intelligence, which is an individual’s capacity to understand and manage emotions.
Practice mindfulness, which might encourage an individual to notice his thoughts and emotions while maintaining a non-judgmental point of view. For example, when an intrusive thought arises, instead of suppressing it or reacting to it, person would acknowledge the thought non-judgmentally and remind himself that it doesn't control him.
These are some other ways to tackle intrusive thoughts:
Being mindful: Dr Abdul Salman Challil, clinical psychologist at NMC hospital, Dubai, explains, “Practice mindfulness, which might encourage an individual to notice his thoughts and emotions while maintaining a non-judgmental point of view. For example, when an intrusive thought arises, instead of suppressing it or reacting to it, person would acknowledge the thought non-judgmentally and remind himself that it doesn't control him.”
Carving out time for the thought: Worry postponement, or ‘stimulus control for worry’ asks you to notice when some thought causes worry, disengage and postpone the worry for a limited 30-minute ‘worry time’ later in the day, as per a 1983 study published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.