Overcoming Our Upsetting Thoughts

How awful!! This disastrous election will undo all the progress we have made for LGBT rights and for other human rights!

  • If I assert my opinions or feelings with my partner, she’ll be disappointed and will leave me.

  • I’m not as attractive / masculine / interesting / successful as other guys, so he’ll lose interest in me before long.

  • If my partner really loved me, she wouldn’t be spending so much time chatting with other women at this party.

These are just a few of the many distressing and distracting hot thoughts that make us feel anxious, insecure or depressed. If only we could silence them!

If only. Have you ever tried to push an annoying thought out of your mind? Typically that effort backfires and ends up strengthening and prolonging the thought. Try this experiment: tell yourself that you must not think about Donald Trump for three minutes, and push him out of your mind whenever he enters your thoughts. Or, when you have a melody in your mind, try very hard to stop thinking about that tune. Most people find that trying to stop thinking about a thought paradoxically leads us to think about it even more! That’s because our efforts to stop thoughts are really telling our brains that these thoughts are very important and should be attended to.

Mindfulness:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches that it is more helpful to train our brains to treat these hot thoughts as unrealistic, unhelpful and unimportant than it is to try to get rid of them. One strategy to do this is called mindfulness: paying attention to the present moment with interest, rather than judgment. I have the impression that most people think mindfulness means meditation. Even many therapists who teach mindfulness training are really just teaching meditation. Meditation is certainly one useful place to practice mindfulness. But for dealing with anxiety and depression, it is essential to practice mindful focus while we are engaged in activities of daily living.

Curiosity Training:

I call this type of mindfulness practice while we are conversing or doing other activities curiosity training. We are learning to get out of our heads and into the moment. Instead of focusing our attention on our hot thoughts, we learn to treat all those thoughts as background noise—something we’re aware of but not paying attention to—and then return our attention to taking interest in the situation, the person, or the conversation in the present moment.

We’re not trying to stop or silence any distressing thoughts. Remember, doing so tends to backfire and strengthen the thoughts and increase our distraction. We are instead learning to gently put those thoughts into the background—like we do with noise—and refocus our attention on taking interest in what is happening outside of ourselves. Some people find it helpful to silently say something very short and non-critical—eg. “mindful,” “present,” “focus”—to briefly interrupt our thoughts and then refocus our attention on the conversation, activity or situation in the moment. Curiosity training takes frequent, ideally daily practice. It’s easiest to start practicing in situations in which you are calm, and then work your way up to increasingly distressing situations as you get better at it.

Thought Defusion:

This is a set of simple strategies aimed at becoming emotionally detached from our thoughts, and viewing them as passing ideas, not lasting truth. Here are a couple techniques to try:

Whenever bothered by a hot thought, tell yourself a simple message that reminds you this is just an unimportant and temporary idea, eg: “That’s one of those old ideas that pester me from time to time. It will pass.” “Right now, I’m having one of my anxious/depressive ideas. It doesn’t matter.” “Nope, I’m not going to take that call” (referring to your hot thought as an unimportant call showing up on your phone). Be creative. Come up with your own self-message that resonates with you. Just make sure you say it with a matter-of-fact, non-upset tone, since the goal is to become emotionally detached from your thoughts. Then, after calmly self-messaging your statement, refocus your attention mindfully (with curiosity) on an activity, conversation or situation in the moment. Repeat whenever you are bothered by hot thoughts.

When you are alone, occasionally do the following exercise: close your eyes and calm yourself with slow, deep breathing. Then mindfully observe whatever thoughts that happen to pass through your mind with an attitude of emotional detachment. Just notice these thoughts, be they words and/or images; don’t respond to them, follow them or try to change them. Just watch as they pass by, change or disappear on their own as though you were watching a video. If you want, try imagery—visualize your thoughts slowly moving away, like balloons, puffy clouds, fallen leaves, or cars on a freight train—and calmly watch your thoughts pass you by with a sense of detachment.

Cognitive Restructuring:

But what if my hot thoughts are too distressing to treat like background noise? Worse yet, what if they are true, or at least partly true? I can’t just ignore them then, can I? Fortunately, there is another strategy used by cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to deal with distressing thoughts called cognitive restructuring. In contrast to mindfulness, which helps us change our relationship with our thoughts, cognitive restructuring helps us learn how to test our thoughts against real world evidence, and change their content so that they are more realistic and helpful. This is not the power of positive thinking. Not everything in life is positive, after all! It’s the power of realistic and helpful thinking.

Here are examples of realistic and helpful alternatives to the hot thoughts listed at the top of this article. With practice, you can develop your own style of healthy thinking.

  • This election was certainly a major setback. But progress is bumpy and setbacks often happen. I must remember that despite past setbacks, we have continued to make much further progress. With each other’s support, we can withstand the backlash and ultimately make further progress.

  • My partner cares about me and has asked about my feelings and opinions. Sharing these with her may help us grow closer. Try it in small steps and see how it goes.

  • Different people have different tastes. I know that my boyfriend and I enjoy each other’s company and are growing closer together. I choose to focus on enjoying the present of our relationship rather than worrying about its future. If it ultimately doesn’t work out, that will be sad. But it would just mean we aren’t the right match for each other and I’ll move on.

  • My partner is quite extroverted and has always enjoyed chatting with lots of people. I have lots of evidence that she loves me.

With practice, cognitive restructuring is a powerful skill that helps you weaken your belief in your hot thoughts so that they are no longer so upsetting. This will make it much easier for you to then mindfully set your hot thought into the background like unimportant noise. I suggest reading Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think for excellent training in how to do cognitive restructuring to help with anxiety and depression.

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