It’s now written on everything from T-shirts to tea towels, but “keep calm and carry on” can be good advice.
A study has found that ignoring persistent worries and fears actually makes them less powerful.
The researchers recruited 120 people in 16 countries and asked them to list fears about the future that had repeatedly caused them distress over the previous six months.
Examples included losing their job, a family member becoming ill, or their children going missing.
Half of the group was then shown a single word representing each fear and instructed to remove the negative thought from their minds.
A study has found that ignoring persistent worries and fears actually makes them less powerful (file image)
After doing the 20-minute exercise with 12 of their fears, people felt less anxious about these worries on average.
Three months later, when asked about their fears, they were still less anxious than before the study and generally had lower symptoms of depression.
Many people think that burying negative feelings makes them come back stronger.
But in fact, immediately after blocking out their fears, people found that they remembered less of them compared to the worries they hadn’t suppressed.
The repressed fears were also generally less vivid than their other concerns.
Professor Michael Anderson, who led the Cambridge University study, said: “These results suggest there is something to the very British idea of a stiff upper lip.”
‘This is a test of the validity of trying to keep calm and carry on.
“It seems that it might be beneficial to actively suppress our worries and fears, and this will make them less vivid, harder to remember, and less anxious.”
Researchers are working on an app to teach people to block their fears, which is expected to be available in about 18 months.
But in the meantime, Professor Anderson said: “People could write down a single word representing each of their fears on separate cue cards and look at each word for about four seconds while blocking the thought.”
‘The important thing is to repress the thought, but without thinking about anything else.
“Our previous research suggests that this allows the right prefrontal cortex to block other parts of the brain to make fear less strong.”
Half of the study volunteers were asked to suppress neutral thoughts about the future, such as an upcoming optician’s appointment.
This provided a group to compare with those who suppress fears and worries.
The researchers wanted to rule out the idea that ignoring negative thoughts could worsen people’s mental health.
In fact, that didn’t seem to be the case, and people who blocked negative thoughts had reduced depressive symptoms three months after the study compared to the beginning of the study.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, tested people’s memory of their fears after using the blocking technique.
This was largely done by checking whether they remembered a key detail of their fear, such as calling their children’s friends to try to find them if they were missing.
People remembered fewer fears in this level of detail after blocking them in their mind, compared to fears they hadn’t blocked.
However, three months later that was no longer the case.
Professor Anderson said: “We are told that we should bring out and process all our negative feelings, but actually blocking them out often seems to be more helpful.”