How people try to control or suppress unwanted thoughts is the research focus of Daniel Wegner, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. This is an important concept for everyone, but especially for people with chronic pain. Try on of Dr. Wegner’s experiments. You will need a piece of paper, a pen and a watch. For two minutes, try not to think of a white bear. If you do happen to think of a white bear, make a hash mark. Now, try the experiment …

All done? Count up the number of times you thought of the white bear. If you are like most people, you probably had trouble not thinking of a white bear. In fact, you may have found that white bear thoughts were bombarding you. You may have even found that when you checked to see if you were thinking of the white bear, that made you think of one. So, what does this have to do with pain? Living with severe pain can trigger intrusive, negative, scary, pessimistic thoughts and images that make chronic pain management even more difficult. You may find yourself trying not to think such thoughts. Like the white bear images, trying to push these thoughts out is difficult; it’s hard to “just not think about” something.

Dr. Wegner says that successful thought suppression involves “thinking about and accepting unwanted thoughts rather than suppressing them—and so, setting free the bears.”


Stress Avoidance. Stress makes it harder to control thoughts and emotions. When you are under stress, try to be aware that you may be more likely to let unwanted thoughts intrude. Then, use relaxation to settle both your stress levels and your thoughts.

Thought Postponement. Notice the troubling thoughts and promise yourself to think about them later. Consider scheduling a few minutes each day to think over the unwanted thoughts, and then let them go.

Focused Distraction. Put simply, shift your attention to something else.

Hypnosis. You may need a therapist for this, although self-hypnosis can also be effective.

Mindfulness and Acceptance. Note that the thought is there, but don’t engage it or try to push it away; let it be and go on to something else.

Meditation and Focused Breathing. This pair of strategies promotes focused distraction to calm you and make it easier to let things go and turn to more positive thoughts.

Journaling. Emotional disclosure through writing has many advantages. Expressing emotions can help release them, reveal new solutions and reduce stress.

If you struggle with intrusive, negative thoughts and images, consider trying Dr. Wegner’s techniques. At the very least, you may start by “acknowledging the bear” and then moving onto something more positive, more hopeful and more productive. {PP}