Don’t Think About White Bears: The Dangers of Memory and Thought Suppression in Recovery

Famed author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his 1863 essay Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, said, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Dostoevsky was noting the fact that when we actively try not to think about something, the opposite often occurs and we ultimately think about it more. This concept, later developed into psychologists refer to as “ironic processing theory,” can be extended into how we cope with unwanted thoughts and memories in our recovery.
Psychologist Daniel Wegner of Harvard University was the first to study Dostoevsky’s “white bear problem,” or the effects of thought and memory suppression. Wegner’s experiment involved asking participants to speak in stream-of-consciousness for five minutes with the instructions not to think of a white bear, and to ring a bell if a white bear came to mind. Wegner found that the participants thought of a white bear, on average, more than once every minute. A follow-up study asked the original participants and a new group to repeat the exercise, this time trying to think about a white bear. The original participants were found to think about a white bear more often than the new participants. Lea Winerman, in a 2011 American Psychology Association article entitled Suppressing the ‘White Bears’, explains, “The results suggested that suppressing the thought for the first five minutes caused it to ‘rebound’ even more prominently into the participants’ minds later.
What does this have to do with addiction recovery? Wegner’s study found that trying to suppress thoughts makes them more prominent, and more likely to rebound later. When we are facing a craving, thoughts of shame or regret, or an anxiety-inducing situation, actively attempting not to think about those things will cause us them to grow and strengthen in our minds. Pushing thoughts of drinking or using into the back of our minds will make those thoughts more prominent. Rather, we can turn our attention to developing healthy coping mechanisms to accept and work through unwanted thoughts. Utilizing therapeutic techniques aimed at accepting and processing those thoughts rather than suppressing them can help us diminish our negative feelings, cravings, and allows us to move toward a greater state of peace and serenity in our recovery.

Your life doesn’t have to be a constant struggle with drugs and alcohol. You can make the decision to change your story for the better by seeking help now. Oceanfront Recovery, located in beautiful Laguna Beach, is staffed with knowledgeable and compassionate professionals dedicated to providing you with all the tools needed to achieve and maintain lasting sobriety. For information about individualized treatment options, please call today: (877) 279-1777