Ironic Rebound: What it Means and What to Do about It

By: Nick Ma

On willpower as a means to cope with anxiety, techniques that help, and polar bears.

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“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.”

“Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1863.

The Willpower Instinct

I was recently reading the book The Willpower Instinct by Dr. Kelly McGonigal to learn about what science has to say about willpower. As a person living with general anxiety disorder, I utilize a lot of willpower everyday to cope with anxiety triggers, so learning how to get more of it has been an important journey. As Psychology Today also mentions here, we could use willpower (an instinct Dr. McGonigal says we all have and can learn to increase) to help us achieve our social goals, to move toward a more fulfilling life. This is relevant whether you have an anxiety disorder or not.

Whilst reading the book and working with the techniques I realized that many of the techniques that increase willpower are about being the master of your own emotions and thoughts, which is also the end goal that anyone dealing with a mental illness strives for. Many devastating willpower fiascos can be traced to a improper thought regulation. One such negative thought regulation is dubbed Ironic Rebound. It describes that the very act of suppressing thoughts in a willpower challenge causes the participant to rebound into temptation the next time they are faced with it.

In The Willpower Instinct Professor Kelly McGonigal, further drills this point in the following quote.

“We may try to push thoughts out of our minds, but the body gets the message anyway. And just as trying to suppress sad and self-critical thoughts makes depression worse, studies show that thought suppression increases the symptoms of serious anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Don’t Think of a White Bear

The field of “thought suppression” was first pioneered by Social Psychologist Dr. Daniel M. Wegner (Harvard University). In his famous study of Suppressing the Thoughts of White Bears.

Dr. Daniel M. Wegner. (Source)

The brief summary of the study (source) is below:

Dr. Wegner decided to test the assumption with a simple experiment: He asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, he told them, they should ring a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, on average.

Next, Wegner asked the participants to do the same exercise, but this time to try to think of a white bear. At that point, the participants thought of a white bear even more often than a different group of participants, who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. 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 This Means for Us

If you replace “whitebear” with any anxious or troubling thought, you can find many real life parallels in the study. Our thoughts are not up to conscious control, and when dealing with unwanted thoughts just the act of suppressing them does nothing, and in fact it has been clinically shown to worsen the thoughts when they relapse.

This is why we need to be aware that forcing ourselves to get better just doesn’t work.

The phenomenon has also been picked up by researchers in addiction, anxiety and depression treatment. An extreme example can be found where Dr. Wegner describes “relaxation induced panic”. Sounds like an oxymoron right? Well it actually happened at a relaxation clinic where when participants were asked to relax, the anxiety prone individuals tried so hard to suppress any anxious thoughts that some actually suffered a panic attack.

In a recent personal example, I was working on a hackathon building a chatbot to take a user through a stress reduction exercise, the more I worked on it the more I realized that I was not practicing any of the stress reduction techniques. To focus on working, I tried suppressing the many anxious thoughts that I was having, needless to say it rebounded 3 hours later with me having a mini — panic attack.

It just goes to show that the intuitive action of trying to suppress thoughts does not work, and is counter-productive if we want to stay healthy. If we define unwanted ruminations as a habit that requires willpower to resolve, trying to suppress the thoughts when they come up will only result in drained energy and a rebounding time bomb waiting to go off!

What We Can Do

So a series of new techniques have been created by researchers and therapists in light of this new knowledge. Here are a few ways that you can manage unwanted thoughts without suppression:

Content adapted from: here and here. Image sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4, Image 5.

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