Quitting smoking or overcoming reliance on other behaviors—such as eating, drinking alcohol, drinking caffeine, sex, excessive exercise, and others—can be difficult. From addiction counseling and group therapy to nicotine-reduction aids and cold-turkey self motivation, there are any number of approaches for how to quit or reduce a habit. One mental strategy that many rely on is suppressing their thoughts of that specific habit. So, for example, suppressing thoughts of cigarettes and smoking when they arise. A new study sought to explore whether thought suppression techniques bear out in long-term behavioral changes, and used cigarette smoking as a way to test the method.
Previous studies have found that being told not to think about something is difficult in the short-term. Specifically, people told not to think about chocolate ate more chocolate. But the smoking study was different. Researchers wanted to know not only what would happen over the course of weeks, but also what would happen after the thought-suppression technique had stopped. Over a 3 week period, people who started at over 10 cigarettes a day were monitored regularly. The first week, everyone smoked as usual. The second week, one group was told to suppress their thoughts of cigarettes, another was told to express their thoughts, and a third served as a control. The third week, they were told to discontinue the expression/suppression technique.
The results were striking: while the thought-suppression group smoked the least during week 2, they rebounded so far in week 3 that they actually smoked more than they had at the outset. This suggests that a “don’t let yourself think about it” approach to addiction therapy may not only be ineffective, but may even make things worse. Overcoming an addiction involves more than initial abstinence or initial reduction. Working to develop a course of addiction therapy that also helps people stick with the change over time is essential.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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