Pink elephants and trauma recovery

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

It’s a classic example of how thought suppression works: counterproductively. You will think of a pink elephant. Wegner and colleagues have shown that it is very difficult to suppress a thought. If you try, it’s very likely that you will think about it more than if you don’t.

This problematic nature of mental control doesn’t apply to fancy experimental settings only. It is thought to play an important role in posttraumatic stress symptoms. Survivors who try harder to avoid thoughts about (or images of) a terrifying moment such as a car crash, are more prone to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Avoidance of trauma-related thoughts makes it more difficult to challenge unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma (see the cognitive model by Ehlers & Clark).

Recently, researchers have started to look at the role of thought suppression in children. The first studies show strong relations with posttraumatic stress symptoms  (see also the meta-analysis by Trickey et al that I recently discussed). Understanding which cognitive processes take place in the development of PTSD in children is essential for our design of helpful interventions. Continue reading