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How Thought Suppression Can Help You Stay Sober

Do you believe in mind over matter?

If you’ve ever heard of the placebo effect, then you’re probably aware that thoughts have a measurable effect on one’s wellness. While its positive effects are usually limited to getting relief from psychological stressors like insomnia, it is evidence that thoughts can influence physical outcomes.

What if you could utilize your mind to suppress your craving for alcohol and other harmful substances? With thought suppression, addicts may have better control over the impulses that lead to addiction.

Find out how thought suppression works and discover the techniques that can help you stay sober.

How Does Thought Suppression Work?

Thought suppression, or thought stopping, is a way of controlling unwanted ideas by consciously attempting to block them. It is used in cognitive behavioural therapy to reduce one’s awareness of intrusive thoughts until the patient no longer thinks about them or, alternatively, learns how to react to them as desired.

When it comes to addiction, thought suppression can help a recovering addict resist overwhelming impulses related to addictive substances. This strategy can also help addicts avoid fantasizing about drugs or alcohol.

A man with closed eyes meditating

How to Avoid Unwanted Thoughts and Stay Sober

Here are a few ways to suppress unwanted thoughts:

    1. Choose a Distraction

Select an alternative idea or memory when intrusive thoughts start to happen. This will force the brain to divide its attention so you can reduce your intrusive thoughts and eventually get rid of them. You can try mental puzzles or listening to a podcast, for example, to help your mind shift its focus.

    2. Schedule Unwanted Thoughts

By allowing your mind to be occupied by unwanted thoughts only at certain times, you may be able to train your brain to focus on other tasks when it’s not on schedule. For example, you can tell yourself, “I’m currently doing [something], so I’m not going to think about [intrusive thought] until [date or time].”

    3. Reduce Your Mental Load

It has been documented that stress can activate neural processes that can induce someone to seek out addictive substances. When you are constantly multitasking, your mind becomes stressed and may become more vulnerable to entertaining addictive thoughts. Try to focus on one task at a time and see if it keeps you from thinking about your addiction.

    4. Use Exposure

Sometimes, addictive thoughts happen after unpleasant thoughts that are not necessarily related to someone’s addiction. For example, public embarrassment may encourage someone to drink to forget about the shameful experience. In contrast, exposure allows one to acknowledge the intrusion and confront it.

By confronting the unpleasant thought, the patient can recognize unhealthy thought patterns that lead to their cravings, unlearn negative associations, reduce their tendency to react, and learn how to better manage their anxiety. This is best done in a controlled environment, under the supervision of a licensed therapist.

a woman practicing meditation

    5. Practice Meditation

Meditation techniques allow patients to detach themselves from stressful thoughts. Instead of fully suppressing them, patients can dissociate themselves and consider them from an observer’s point of view.

Once “disconnected,” it will be easier for patients to recognize pain points and analyze their situation without judgment. Meditation is also a better option than escapism, which may include the use of addictive substances.

    6. Write in a Journal

Journaling is a way to lighten mental load by transferring unwanted thoughts from the mind to paper. The release of stressful thoughts can help reduce anxiety that may fuel urges or intensify pain. Once an unwanted thought is written down, the patient can forget about it.

Possible Rebound Effects of Thought Suppression

Early research on thought suppression led to the theory that attempting to block unwanted thoughts activates two distinct processes:

    1.   Actively seeking out things or experiences to create the desired state of mind; and
    2.   Confirming (monitoring) success of intention.

Say you are on a diet to maintain or achieve your desired weight. Instead of eating cake, you might reach out for healthier alternatives like vegetables and hummus. You may also choose to distract yourself with exercise.

However, in an attempt to monitor your progress, you might unconsciously think of cake if you’re counting the days you have successfully removed it from your diet. The result: reactivation of the suppressed thought and possibly intensifying your craving by creating another means to think of cake.

So, how do we improve the success of this technique?

Since monitoring is an automatic response, you can’t do much to prevent it. However, changing how you monitor your progress can help you stay on track with your goal.

In the above example, instead of counting the days you have successfully avoided cake, you can focus on a different success indicator. Set a target for the healthier alternative and monitor how many portions of vegetables you are eating daily. You may also keep track of how many inches you’ve shed or how much weight you’ve lost each week.

Doing a liberal suppression rather than a forced suppression can also help reduce pressure and anxiety that can bring about more stress and intrusive thoughts.

a woman in therapy

Does Thought Suppression Work for Everyone?

Thought suppression as a coping mechanism, when used appropriately, can be a handy skill.

However, it is important to note that thought suppression may have a negative effect on trauma survivors, as the thoughts they are trying to suppress are associated with negative experiences. Trying to suppress these traumatic thoughts may reinforce them in the victim’s memory instead, which in turn may worsen psychological symptoms instead of eliminating them.

This is why the application of trauma-informed care in rehabilitation is important. Assuming trauma when deciding on a treatment strategy can help prevent additional stress and facilitate long-term recovery.

Take note that thought suppression may also not be appropriate for people with other mental health conditions. For example, persons with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may run the risk of being caught in a vicious cycle of overthinking if they use thought suppression to stay sober.

If you are experiencing other psychological symptoms, you must seek the advice of a medical professional before trying adaptive techniques. Do you want to learn which coping strategies work best to help you stay sober? Call our 24/7 hotline now.


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