Imagine this, You’ve been struggling emotionally for a while and a good soul amongst your family or friends notices this. They come up to talk to you and ask you what’s going on. Hesitantly you mention your struggles and they seem to be a good listener. Encouraged by this, you pour your heart out to them. After about an hour of listening through your struggles, with the best of intentions they utter the five words that you will soon start to dread, “Just stop thinking about it”.
Chances are you didn’t have to imagine this scenario because you already have a memory of a similar experience. Most people who give out this advice really do want to help but don’t realise how ineffective it is. You might have even tried to self-impose this advice to fight back uncomfortable thoughts, with disappointing results.
Let’s try an experiment
Imagine a hot pink elephant, let’s call him Mumbo. Imagine Mumbo as vividly as possible, his glorious pink ears and trunk are a sight to behold!
Now for the next 30 seconds DO NOT think of Mumbo. Especially DO NOT imagine Mumbo with big sunglasses, fishnet stockings and fluffy pink heels. Whatever you do, avoid thinking of the sassy hot pink Mumbo. Seriously! Stop! Try your best to erase the hot pink elephant from your memory. Did it happen? Were you able to stop thinking of Mumbo?
Now Imagine a bright blue monkey called Gumbo. Visualise the bright blue Gumbo swinging from branch to branch on a yellow tree. Try to picture it in detail.
What happened to the thought of hot pink Mumbo now?
What happens to the thoughts we fight?
Research by Daniel Wegner, a professor at Harvard University, found that when we deliberately try to suppress a thought, one part of our mind will avoid the thought, but another part will keep checking to make sure the thought isn’t coming to mind. This makes it more likely for the thoughts to keep resurfacing. This phenomenon is known as the “ironic process theory”.
Just like mumbo our negative thoughts are not easy to bury away at the back of our mind.
The process our minds engage to not think the thought, actually makes us think the thought.
Before you get disheartened, there are other ways to manage our negative and uncomfortable thoughts.
What do we do instead?
1. The blue monkey strategy
Remember how thinking of Gumbo the bright blue monkey helped you distract yourself from thoughts of the hot pink elephant, Mumbo.
The reason why this happens is that there’s only a limited space in your mind that thoughts can occupy at any given point of time. That space can be taken up with negative thoughts or positive thoughts or both. The more negative thoughts there are, the less positive ones there will be.
Actively engaging yourself in activities that increase positive thoughts (blue monkeys) can make sure there’s not enough space for the negative anxious thoughts to linger. Something as simple as watching a video that makes you smile can significantly reduce the space available for your negative thoughts.
Activities that give you a sense of accomplishment (Going to the gym, checking something off your To-Do list, finishing a piece of art etc) work especially well against your hot pink negative thoughts.
2. Worry-time strategy
Negative thoughts become particularly bothersome when they pop up randomly and affect our daily functioning. They can paralyse us and keep us from doing things that can improve our situation. Even if we can’t completely stop these thoughts from showing up, we can control when and where we choose to engage with these thoughts.
Make a note of these thoughts as and when they pop up (writing it down really helps) and schedule a time of day to think them through. Try to be aware of whether your thinking is problem-oriented or solution-oriented. A therapist or a counsellor can help you with developing a more solution-oriented style of thinking.
3. ‘Befriend and challenge’ strategy
If your negative thoughts are chronic, sitting down with them might help better than fighting to evict them from your mind. Just like trying not to think about the thought makes it worse, actively trying to think about the thought can take the power away.
Once you no longer see the thought as your enemy, challenge it to see its truthfulness.
Ask yourself the following questions:
What is the evidence for this thought?
Is there evidence against the thought?
Am I discounting small things that contradict the thought as unimportant?
Try to write these down as you answer them. Remind yourself that thoughts are not facts. They constantly change and morph. What we do with these thoughts and how we respond to them matters more than the thought itself.
We hope these strategies help you get started with conquering your Mumbos, but if you were to find yourself unable to get a hold of it alone - reach out to Lostalittle and our team of therapists can definitely help you out. Our demo session is only for Rs. 99/-.