Light Suppression vs. Strong Suppression

Two and a half years ago, I went through a lightly traumatic, near death experience. When I recall the event in my own mind, or if someone who knows about it raises the memory with me, I usually begin to shed a few tears (my eyes well up within 10-15 seconds) and my heart rate increases. A couple months ago, I had dinner with a couple people who were there at the time of the incident, and they brought it up (“Do you remember that time…”). Light tears gathered almost instantaneously in my eyes. And, later that night, I tossed and turned and thought about the incident for several hours while trying to fall asleep.

To be clear, it’s not something I think about every day or even every week. I’ve only had one real “flashback.” And even when I do experience stress about it, it’s not debilitating. I usually cry lightly for 30-45 seconds, and then move on. Sometimes I don’t cry at all; I simply agitate mentally about it, quietly. For example, a few days ago, I was reading a book and came across the phrase “near death experience” (in a context that had nothing to do with the incident I went through). I stopped reading and I found myself, in my mind’s eye, going back to the incident 2.5 years ago and I spent 5 minutes thinking about it. So, I lost focus for a bit, but then let it go and was able to continue reading. Not a huge deal, all things considered.

I’ve considered seeking professional counseling or approaches like CBT to process my experience. But I think that’s overkill for what I’m experiencing.

So instead, I’m trying an old fashioned method: suppression. I’m simply trying not to dwell on it too much. I’m consciously aware of what’s happening, which makes this suppression instead of repression (which would refer to unconsciously suppressing feelings).

A doctor friend who thinks about these things pointed out to me the difference between “strong suppression” and “light suppression.”

Strong suppression would be establishing a rule with myself that I’m not going to think about the incident again. I’d also tell the 4-5 people who were present at the incident or know about it: “Hey, don’t ever bring up that incident again.”

Light suppression would involve not proactively thinking about, not bringing it up with others, and generally trying to change the topic if the topic came up. But it would not be establishing a hard and fast rule. If I randomly thought about the topic, or someone else raised it, that’s fine — I would simply change the topic swiftly and not sweat it. I wouldn’t relive it, or analyze it, or dwell on it, or talk about it. If it happens to come into my mind, I let it be and let it pass on by and then get back to whatever I was working on / thinking about.

The challenge with a strong suppression strategy is it creates stress around compliance and enforcement. If I tell someone “Hey, never talk to me about that again” I now have to monitor compliance with that rule. The monitoring process itself is stressful in addition to the stress that arises when the incident becomes top of mind.

It occurred to me that there’s a generalizable lesson here, perhaps, about strong vs. light rules in other domains of life. The stronger held the rule, the more stress you’re putting on yourself to monitor and enforce compliance with that rule. For example, with habits, if you create a strong rule of needing to do something every single day (e.g. meditation), the stress of monitoring your own compliance with that rule can be more cost than it’s worth. It’s also the case that once you break a strongly held rule — or catch yourself not being compliant — it can be harder to re-capture the motivation to begin again from 0.

So I’m going with light suppression here. I’m not going to write about or think proactively about this incident again. When it arises in my mind, I’ll let the thought pass on by. And I’ll change the topic if someone else raises it with me.

4 comments on “Light Suppression vs. Strong Suppression
  • Light suppression probably works well for moderators, whereas abstainers might do better with strong suppression (if I can borrow from Gretchen Rubin’s lexicon). Maybe. Who knows? Just a thought. Ditto going cold turkey on a toxic relationship versus being able to tolerate occasional interaction with the toxic person.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Ben.

    If there’s any sense of guilt or moral injury (worldview-shattering) associated with it, a gentler approach such as light suppression is likely to be more effective. Self-compassion does wonders in cases of trauma.

  • Now, with all due respect for your good doctor friend’s suggestion, I say, Fuck that. Fuck suppression. Own this shit, man. Revisit that moment, and relive every sensation of the experience. Feel the terror, sweat the sweat, release your adrenaline—up until that very instant you think you’re going to die—and LAUGH. Laugh your fucking ass off. Laugh like a maniac for a good long time, like Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb out the bomb bay to oblivion. Make a song out of your maniacal laugh and SING IT, brother.

    Either that, or get some DMT and smoke it. Same thing.

  • As someone who lived through 20 years of physical trauma, in my personal experience, it’s best to release the experience from the body. Not easy, but you will feel better. Waking the Tiger is good book to start off with to understand somatics.

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