Pay attention to suppression: Check out the psychological strategy to reduce mental burden

Attention suppression is a cognitive process by which the brain—whose fundamental job is to protect us from a threat— signals the onset of something unpleasant, confusing or overwhelming.

Published: 25th December 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th December 2022 04:41 PM   |  A+A-

Suppression, mental burden

For reprentational purpose

Express News Service

Our brain has got our back. Like a true loyalist, it’s hard-wired to protect and prepare us for an emergency. Through trillions of connections called synapses, which interpret information from the outside world, the brain is the first to recognise stress, enabling us to respond to it effectively. Of the many strategies it uses, one is particularly effective: attention suppression.

It is a cognitive process by which the brain—whose fundamental job is to protect us from a threat— signals the onset of something unpleasant, confusing or overwhelming. With this ability to preferentially process information, while sifting out heavier emotions such as fear, overwhelm, anger, shame or emptiness, we remain right in the head.

How it plays out

Attention suppression operates in two ways— the first is involuntary or subconscious, the second attentional, also known as avoidance-based suppression, which is more common.

“In the latter, the brain gets on high alert and reacts to the trigger by actively avoiding complicated emotions, situations or people. The most common way it does this is by distraction; you start thinking about something else, change the conversation or physically leave the place. By focusing on something else when you're panicked, you reduce the intensity of the negative emotion and are in a better position to ‘step away’ and come back more mindful,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychotherapist Dewan Parthi.

This is particularly helpful at work as it boosts productivity. You learn ways of dwelling less on negative thoughts and more on the task at hand. Keeping you emotionally stable conserves energy that you can use in managing your workload. “It boosts focus by reducing the interference of task-irrelevant information that fogs our clarity,” says Jain.

In the absence of a coping mechanism like this, one can get easily sucked into a vortex of negative emotions and nothing drains brain energy more than juggling between different environmental stimuli. Attention suppression helps manage this load by turning off our attention from some of the difficult feelings, so we can use our mental resources constructively.

The other type of attention suppression is involuntary, wherein the brain simply blocks out specific unpleasant memories. “Here, your subconscious mind does all the work. It restricts impulses and ideas that are undesirable. It’s a powerful cognitive mechanism that prevents the activation of traumatic information, therefore, you don’t feel the need to actively engage with the stimulus,” he says.

Use it well

To make the best use of attention suppression, consistency makes all the difference. Whether distraction or avoidance, don’t get rigid about the results as there may be times when suppressing your attention doesn’t work, or worse, makes things more difficult.

“In such a situation, use the diffusion technique,a therapy module used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), wherein you distance and disconnect yourself from your thoughts and feelings, step back and observe, and come back into the scene with more objectivity,” says Delhi-based cognitive behavioural therapist Shasha Rai Jain. You can do this by diaphragm breathing, gentle movement or humming a song.

“It will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves in the brain that will reduce stress,” says Jain.  

Attention snag
Attention suppression can work to your disadvantage if used injudiciously. The first mistake people make is to see it as a way of putting off dealing with unresolved emotional issues altogether. Difficult emotions must be dealt with sooner rather than later, otherwise, attention suppression can backfire, leading to emotional conflict, and paralysing your ability to deal with distress effectively.

People with OCD should especially avoid overusing this strategy as it can make unwanted thoughts even more dominant. In the end, remember, everyone, suffers from worrisome thoughts. On the days that they get particularly difficult to manage, attention suppression may help. But in the long run, you want to ‘deal’ rather than suppress.

Suppression vs Repression

✥ Use warm water, and not hot as it can make the rashmore inflamed.
✥  Use unscented products 

✥  Avoid fabric softeners as these may contain eczema-triggering chemicals.
✥ Avoid dry environments. If that is not possible, use a humid

How to do it

✥ Distraction: Think of something else, change the conversation, go for a walk, hum a song
✥ Limited exposure: If you know a person or place triggers you, take small steps in getting comfortable with the stimuli
✥ Defuse: Take a few minutes and disconnect with what’s happening and come back into the scene

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