If you can’t have it, you’ve got it. – Steve Hayes
A while back, I asked what we were supposed to do about all those nagging thoughts yapping away in our brains – the wondering, the what-ifs, the criticism, the annoyance, basically all the thoughts we try not to have if we want to live our days in some semblance of happiness.
Because we all know we can’t be happy if we have junk flying around in our heads. Right? Or can we?
My dissertation was a lovely little number about the benefits of emotional expression in adolescents with asthma. It took forever to complete, and many was the day I cursed myself for ever having decided to do it, but I’m so glad I finished (for many reasons, one of which being I got to graduate). One of the most interesting things I learned about was how expressing our emotions can actually lead to physical health improvements. Especially if expressing these emotions is difficult, and not something we often do readily – stuff we aren’t likely to just blurt out at the next social gathering.
It turns out that when we don’t express ourselves, it’s work – it takes energy to suppress all those thoughts and feelings. This might not surprise you, but the extent to which this could tap into various body systems and affect health was really intriguing to me. There’s actually a term alexithymia that refers to people who (among other traits) really struggle to identify and express emotions in themselves and others – and this leads to a higher association with medical and psychiatric conditions. Dr. Mark Lumley at Wayne State has a research lab that focuses heavily on stress reduction through emotional disclosure, and if you are so inclined,you can check out what his lab is doing now. Yep, I was one of his students.
So, what to do with all those thoughts? Wrangle friends, relatives, random passers-by and unload? Write about them? Talk to yourself in the car or when you’re alone in the house? Well, we can do that. And the writing especially may have some benefit, particularly if we can come to some better understanding of the situation that’s troubling us. But then again sometimes we feel we’re just buying into all the problems and worries and giving them even more attention. Sometimes we feel we’ve hashed it out aplenty, and now what?
Should we shove the thoughts we don’t like in a mental box? Have you ever tried to shove thoughts in a box? I have. Let’s try it:
TRY NOT TO THINK OF A WHITE ELEPHANT
What did you just think of? Uh huh. Now try not to think of a lemon. Or whatever. As soon as you think “Don’t think about X” your brain makes all sorts of connections to X. It’s just how our brains work. They are wonderful meaning-making, connection-creating machines. No white elephants. Okay, what about gray elephants? They’re not white ele…oh crap. Okay, how about a rhino? They’re different from elephants because…darn it! Pretty soon you’re thinking of white elephants or lemons or what a loser you are (you’re not!) even more than you would have, had you not been trying so hard.
Talking back to the negative thoughts sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? And sometimes it works, but as we are refuting the statements we’re still attending to them, just like when I said I thought of a rhino which clearly isn’t a white elephant…and I just thought about a white elephant again! The Steve Hayes quote above sort of fits into this idea – the thing we say we can’t have or handle in our lives…we’ve got them. The more we fight against them and say we can’t be happy until they’re fixed, the more they stay.
But we don’t want to just embrace the crummy thoughts. I’m not saying buy into all that garbage. What if there’s another alternative? What if we can let the thoughts come and go, and just observe them? This is the essence of mindfulness and nonjudgment – and it’s VERY hard to do at first. We tend to get dragged into evaluations and “fusion” with (to use an ACT term) these thoughts and feelings. We even start calling ourselves the feeling or thought: I’m anxious. I’m mad. I’m depressed. I’m elated. I’m curious. Whatever it may be. No, you’re not mad. You’re a person who is feeling angry feelings right now. See the difference? The hard part is to put some distance between ourselves as the person noticing the thoughts/feelings and those thoughts/feelings themselves.
One way to make some space between you and your thoughts or emotions, after noticing them, is to name them. I’m noticing I’m worried about getting the budget in on time, etc. Right away, that creates a little distance. There are more activities and ideas to try, but that’s a good start.
I picked this picture for today’s post because it looks so simple and it’s actually so hard to do. But bit by bit, we can get there, at least some of the time!