Suppressing negative thoughts may be good for mental health after all, study suggests

It is now written on everything from T-shirts to tea towels – but ‘keep calm and carry on’ may actually be good advice.

A study has found ignoring nagging worries and fears does actually make them less powerful.

Researchers recruited 120 people in 16 countries, asking each to list fears for the future which had repeatedly caused them distress over the previous six months.

Examples included losing their job, a family member falling ill, or their children going missing.

Then half of the group were shown a single word representing each fear and instructed to push the negative thought out of their mind.

A study has found ignoring nagging worries and fears does actually make them less powerful (stock image)

After doing the 20-minute exercise with 12 of their fears, people felt less anxious about these worries on average.

Questioned about the fears three months later, they were still less anxious about them than they had been before the study – and they had lower symptoms of depression more generally.

Many people think burying negative feelings makes them come back more strongly.

But in fact, immediately after blocking out their fears, people found they remembered fewer of them compared to worries they had not suppressed.

The suppressed fears were also generally less vivid than their other worries.

Professor Michael Anderson, who led the study from the University of Cambridge, said: ‘These results suggest there is something in the very British idea of a stiff upper lip.

‘This is evidence for the validity of trying to keep calm and carry on.

‘It seems it could be beneficial to actively suppress our concerns and fears, and that this will make them less vivid, harder to remember and less anxiety-provoking.’

The researchers are working on an app to train people how to block their fears, which is hoped to be available in around 18 months.

But in the meantime, Professor Anderson said: ‘People could write a single word representing each of their fears on separate cue cards and stare at each word for about four seconds while blocking the thought.

‘The important thing is to suppress the thought, but without thinking about anything else.

‘Our previous research suggests this allows the right prefrontal cortex to block other parts of the brain to make the fear less strong.’

Half the volunteers in the study were asked to suppress neutral thoughts about the future, like an upcoming optician’s appointment.

This provided a group to compare with those suppressing fears and worries.

Researchers wanted to rule out the idea that ignoring negative thoughts could worsen people’s mental health.

Indeed, it did not appear to, and people who blocked negative thoughts had reduced depressive symptoms three months after the study compared to the start of it.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, tested people’s memory of their fears after they had used the blocking technique.

This was largely done by checking if they remembered a key detail of their fear – like ringing their child’s friends to try and find them if they had gone missing.

People remembered fewer of their fears at this level of detail after blocking them in their mind, compared to fears they had not blocked.

However this was no longer the case three months later.

Professor Anderson said: ‘We are told we need to dredge up and process all of our negative feelings, but in fact blocking them often seems to be more useful.’