Stop Thinking of That White Bear – Actively Suppressing Negative Thoughts

Stop thinking of that White Bear - Actively Suppressing Negative Thinking


Often times you know you’re not in the right type of thinking. Often times when you’re sad, depressed, or feel anger you’re aware of the feeling and the situation, you want to suppress it, yet the feeling grows and sometimes it gets out of control.

The same thing happens with anxiety and panic attacks. You know what triggers your anxiety and you try not to think of that thought. Yet, you cannot force yourself not to do so. It grows, and there you have it: your self-empowering feeling of anxiety. It’s even worse with panic attacks as it may make you socially incompatible.

Don’t think of that White Bear…

I believe this happens because your mind does not operate with negation. It does not know how not to think of something. You try telling your mind not to think of white bears for example, as it was in the study conducted by Wegner in 1987, and you will find that you’re not able to do so. Your mind does not see the “don’t” from “don’t think of white bears”. It can only see “white bears”.

Whenever you try not to think of something, you bring up the memories that you have linked with that “something”. You also bring up the feelings attached to that thought or event from your life. It builds up in your mind and body. Stopping it will lead to no results.

The same holds valid with anger, remorse, and other negative thoughts and feelings that you may try to hold back.

I found out about the study conducted by Wegner and of other interesting studies of thought suppression and willpower challenges in the book written by Kelly McGonigal, which is called The Willpower Instinct.

Escaping the Vicious Circle

Your mind cannot hold 2 conflicting thoughts at the same time. It cannot hold two different feelings at once. Instead of trying to suppress your thoughts, I would suggest focusing on another thought, the escaping thought. This is often used in neuro-linguistic programming.

The escaping thought is a positive thought that you bring up to replace the negative thought. The escaping thought could be a happy memory, a person that you get along well with, a feeling that you have when you do something. Whenever you bring up the escaping thought, you will try to bring up the feelings and emotions associated with that thought or event from your life. Let me illustrate.

Say I suffer from anxiety every time I’m in crowded places. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I feel a lot of tension throughout my body; I feel nervous. More over, I get this feeling even when I think of going to crowded places. This happens because my mind makes no distinction between illusion and reality.

So what do I do?

I’m a strategic thinker and I try to approach this in an intelligent way. What one great moment from my life makes me feel positive and relaxed?

It often happens when I ride my bike in the forest nearby the city I live in. Whenever I think of those moments, I can vividly feel the joy and the freedom associated with them. It decreases tension and it brings relaxation throughout my body.

Thus, when I feel I’m about to experience an anxious or panicky moment, I will not force myself not to think of it. I will instead quickly plug-in “my saving thought“. Michael Phelps used a similar technique in his swimming practices. It helped him achieve amazing results in the past few championships.

It may come with a greater difficulty to use this method for starters. It may not work the first few times you try it. But keep pushing it, keep trying to enforce the “saving thought” whenever you feel anger, sad, depression, remorse, or panic and it may become very effective.

In time, your brain will learn to automatically (without your conscious effort) plug-in the “saving thought” when negative feelings circle around you.

There’s another technique that psychiatrists use in treating phobias, anxieties, and panic attacks. It involves “direct confrontation” with the fears and it usually takes place in a controlled environment. The patient is taught to gradually disassociate anxiety and panic with his/her phobias by reliving them (sometimes through hypnosis) to a certain degree.

However, the “saving thought” is easier and handier. Again, I will emphasize on the fact that The Willpower Instinct is a good reference for challenges of willpower, as well as for helping you eliminate negative habits or bad behavior.


If you’re having a hard time with the “saving thought” method, please share your experience in either of the comment sections below. If it’s been useful, let me know how you particularly approach it so that I and other readers can benefit from it as well.


1. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(1), 5.

2. Kelly McGonigal – The Willpower Instinct

3. Maxwell Maltz – Psycho-Cybernetics

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2 Responses to Stop Thinking of That White Bear – Actively Suppressing Negative Thoughts

  1. Jan Koch says:

    What a great post Chris, mindset is one of the most important topics in live!

    I’m reading The New Psycho-Cybernetics currently (great book btw.), and it says one should use positive visualization techniques daily to establish a positive image of self and positive expectations of live.

    It’s normal to encounter negative thoughts from time to time, especially when we’re striving towards ambitious goals. The key is to stay focused and motivated, even when things go wrong.

    One great way is to recall positive experiences from the past to reduce the current anxiety. Active muscle relaxation helps too. Studies show that we don’t feel stressed when our body is relaxed.

    Keep it up my friend!

    • Chris Chris says:

      Yep, I havent recalled it here but muscle relaxation definitely helps because it mimics a state of calmness. And you cannot be angry or negative feelings when your body is relaxed.

      Usually when your feeling negative thoughts your cortisol levels tends to go higher. It may prepare you for the fight or flight response. The mechanism is not bad designed because it can save your life when you’re at peril. But I guess that most of us are not at peril when staying in the office and getting angry on the emails from inbox.

      I’m curios what’s different in “The New Psycho-Cybernetics” compared to the older version.

      Thanks for your input Jan!

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