Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it. In a 2011 study psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. Those who tried to muffle the thought reported dreaming about it more, a phenomenon called dream rebound.
Suppressing thoughts and feelings can even be harmful. In a 2012 study psychotherapist Eric L. Garland of Florida State University and his associates measured a stress response based on heart rate in 58 adults in treatment for alcohol dependence while exposing them to alcohol-related cues. Subjects also completed a measure of their tendency to suppress thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.
Accepting the Pain
Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state. Many people find it helpful to breathe slowly and deeply while learning to tolerate strong feelings or to imagine the feelings as floating clouds, as a reminder that they will pass. I often tell my clients that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more.
If the emotion is overwhelming, you may want to express how you feel in a journal or to another person. The exercise may shift your perspective and bring a sense of closure. If the discomfort lingers, consider taking action. You may want to tell a friend her comment was hurtful or take steps to leave the job that makes you miserable.
You may also try doing mindfulness exercises to help you become aware of your present experience without passing judgment on it. One way to train yourself to adopt this state is to focus on your breathing while meditating and simply acknowledge any fleeting thoughts or feelings. This practice may make it easier to accept unpleasant thoughts [see “Being in the Now,” by Amishi P. Jha; Scientific American Mind, March/April 2013]. Earlier this year Garland and his colleagues found that among 125 individuals with a history of trauma who were also in treatment for substance dependence, those who were naturally more mindful both coped better with their trauma and craved their drug less. Likewise, in a 2012 study psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University and her co-workers found that a therapy that included mindfulness training helped individuals overcome anxiety disorders. It worked not by minimizing the number of negative feelings but by training patients to accept those feelings.
“It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts,” Sauer-Zavala says. Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key, she adds. Indeed, once my client accepted his thoughts and feelings, shaking off his shame and guilt, he saw his problems with greater clarity and proceeded down the path to recovery.
This article was originally published with the title Taking the Bad with the Good.