I’m not talking about the Alanis Morissette song here. Ironic rebound is a process that was first described by Wegner(1) and refers to the effect of trying to supress a thought process. In other words, if you try not to think about something then this becomes big and bold in your mind. The more you try to supress the thought the stronger it gets.
This is relevant when you are working with clients and trying to help them improve their diet. If you tell them to avoid alcohol or perhaps, chocolate. Two things are going to happen.
- They will start to think more about chocolate and/or alcohol
- They will notice these two wherever they are, and the thoughts will get stronger.
The second point happens because by telling the client they should “avoid” or “can’t have” chocolate and/or alcohol you have brought these to the attention of the reticular activating system (RAS). You have effectively signalled to the brain that you need to be made aware of any occurrences of these. The first point then gets strengthened because they are now spotting more of these temptations.
There are two ways to manage this. Firstly, do not label things as good/bad or banned. That is guaranteed to get the RAS working overtime. The second is to give the client a coping mechanism when the thoughts do arise (ironic rebound occurs). Get them to let the thought about chocolate and/or alcohol come into the conscious and tell them that is fine. They must not try to supress the thought as this makes the situation worse. Get them to think it through and rationalise their thought around this. With time other thoughts will take over.
It’s “ironic” but the way to deal with ironic rebound and unwanted thoughts is to think about the thoughts when they occur and do not try to supress them.
- Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34–52.