Tom, a 30-year-old man sought my help for anxiety relief. He was crying every day and didn’t know what to do about his anxiety.
The following is a portion of the conversation I had with him:
Tom: My wife left me one week after our wedding day! She said that she had rushed into the decision of marrying me.
–How long were you two dating?
Tom: We were living together for about three years. Everything was fine. I just don’t understand it. I cry and cannot stop it. My mother is distraught and doesn’t know how to help me. I feel so bad crying in front of her.
He told me that if he tried not to think of her but lots of things remind him of her ex. If he heard a song that she liked, he couldn’t control his tears.
Tom: I still love her. We talk on the phone and I cry and tell her how much I miss her.
–How does she react when you cry and plead?
Tom: She is cold and insulting. She tells me that I’m weak that I cannot get over her. I can’t help it, I still love her. We do lots of texting to each other. I’m so polite with her but she is rude and demeaning toward me.
Tom told me that his ex had hired a lawyer to process the separation and divorce. He knew that it was over but he couldn’t help loving her. His mind knew that this relation was over but his heart wanted her back!
–Blaise Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing.”
Tom smiled and understood that it would be useless to fight his feelings or trying to control them with his rational mind.
Tom: You are right, I cannot reason with my heart. But what should I do?
I gave Tom a task to be able to express his emotions. I also ask him to do an experiment for a week. I asked him to change his attitude toward his ex from being warm and available to being cold and distant. He agreed to carry the task out for one week as an experiment. He would, among other things, avoid responding to her messages immediately, and when he replied, he would use few words and maintain a serious tone.
One week later
Tom was bewildered! He said that he had to go to pick up his belongings and through the half an hour he was there with his ex, Tom acted very distant and cold. He said that it was difficult not to plead as before and cry pleading her to come back but he was firm and said few words.
At one point his ex hugged Tom from behind and talked to him with a gentle voice telling nice things to him! Tom was shocked! He couldn’t understand why his ex had changed her attitude. When Tom was pleading her and crying, she acted cold and said nasty things to him. However, when he acted cold and distant, she was warm and gentle.
The next day Tom did an experiment on his own. He acted as before: replied her messages immediately; used a warm and polite tone when talking to her and expressed his desire to have her back in his life. To Tom’s amazement, his ex responded rudely and insulted him.
Tom: I learned my lesson. I decided that I don’t want to be around someone like her. I deserve better.
Have you ever had a violent thought toward a close person? Maybe you thought of hurting someone you love; stabbing them; pushing them; or acting in other horrifying ways. If one of these thoughts has popped into your head without your control, you are not alone. You are not a bad person. You are not mad. You are not a criminal.
These thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts”. They are inappropriate images that enter your mind without your volition or control. They are basically stupid thoughts without any reason behind them.
Intrusive thoughts are common among those who suffer from anxiety disorder. However, these unwanted thoughts do appear also in the mind of those people who are not necessarily struggling with anxiety.
For most people these violent thoughts and images are fleeting moments of anxiety. People get very scared when they cannot dismiss them mainly because they fear they might actually put them into practice.
Avoid These 5 Mistakes
Before you learn what to do about these unwanted thoughts, let’s see five most common mistakes people make when they try to get rid of intrusive thoughts.
The first mistake is searching for the origin of these thoughts and asking, “Why do I have these thoughts?” The more you search for a logical reason, the more difficult it becomes to find a solution. These thoughts are useless and stupid.
Second mistake is trying very hard not to think of unwanted thoughts. However, our brain cannot forget by will power. You cannot not to think of something because not thinking is thinking with more intensity!
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the nineteen Century Russian author, warned us about this mistake with the following challenge:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Social psychologist Daniel Wegner put Dostoevsky’s advice to test. In his study, the participants were divided into two groups. The first group was instructed to think of white bears for five minutes. The second group was asked not to think of white bears for the same period of time. Then after a short break, both groups were asked to think of white bears again.
Wegner found that the members of the group that were told not to think for five minutes and then were asked to think, they thought of white bears more often than participants who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. The results of this research confirmed that Dostoevsky’s was right: you cannot banish a thought forcefully.
The third mistake is trying to resist the negative thoughts. Some therapists claim that whenever you have an intrusive thought, you will be able to control them if you say to yourself “Stop!” This thought stopping technique is not an effective way to get rid of unwanted thoughts because it’s a variation of the first mistake.
The forth mistake is also another variation of the first inefficient strategy. Some people try to distract their mind. Distraction may help you focus on another topic; however, it will not eliminate the intrusive thoughts. Later they will pop up into your head.
The fifth mistake is to try to convince yourself that you would never actually do such things. Although this seems a logical strategy, it does not work because by reasoning with these thoughts, you are paying attention to them. Whenever you search for a rational response to unwanted thoughts, it’s like running away from a monster as well as feeding fresh meat to eat! It will become stronger.
How to eliminate intrusive thoughts
The first step in eliminating intrusive thoughts is becoming aware of the above mistakes and avoiding them. They are ineffective strategies that could actually make the problem worse.
There are two specific strategies that can help you eliminate intrusive thoughts:
First useful strategy:
Every time you get an unwanted thought or image, say to yourself: “This is a stupid thought”, “ It doesn’t deserve an intelligent reply”, and “I can block my reaction to it.” As you can see, this is a different approach than trying to stop the negative thought or not thinking. You have no control over a thought that involuntarily comes to your mind. Once you have an image in your head, you cannot get rid of it.
Where is your domain of control? The answer is: your own reaction. You can control how you answer these thoughts. So, instead of focusing your attention on the unwanted thoughts, focus your effort on your reaction to them.
For few weeks practice ignoring these thoughts by avoiding giving them rational replies. Stupid thoughts do not deserve intelligent answers.
Second useful strategy:
If the first strategy is too weak for you, then you can use one of the Chinese principles of Tao Te Ching. Lao Tse, the author of this classic book of ancient wisdom, writes:
“What is in the end to be weakened,
Begins by being first made strong.”
This means that if you want to diminish or eliminate the unwanted thoughts, first you must encourage their flow. You can let intrusive thoughts to come to your mind without trying to stop them.
Allow yourself voluntarily to think of all these nasty thoughts. There are some rules to doing this correctly. You decide when, where and for how long you think these thoughts. It is done in a controlled fashion: it has a beginning and an end.
This exercise will help you control the uncontrollable because it’s a paradoxical approach. Reflect for a minute! The more you try to control your thoughts, the more you lose control of them. To overcome this paradoxical impasse, you apply a counter-paradox. You let go of control in order to gain control.
This idea may be scary at first but will help you channel the intrusive thoughts. After two weeks of this paradoxical exercise, the unwanted thoughts will be less likely to come back into your mind.
A good way to tame these negative thoughts is to write them down. In a previous blog post I explain in detail the step-by-step of this assignment. You can set an alarm to write for 30 minutes all your intrusive thoughts that you voluntarily can conjure up. Then write whatever comes to your mind as you express freely any emotion that you feel. Perform this task alone in a room so you would feel free to cry if you feel like it. When the alarm goes off, stop writing and tear up the papers into pieces.
“What you deny, subdues you. What you accept, transforms you.” Carl Jung
We all have negative and worrisome thoughts. Often we don’t know how to overcome them. Here is a proven way to banish your negative thoughts and worries.
The tool that I recommend you is simple and powerful. All you need are papers and a pen.
Before I explain you how to go about it, let’s see its benefits. Several studies have shown that writing down your thoughts and negative emotions has many health benefits.
A study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, found that writing down emotionally distressing events help you reduce your anxiety.
In another study Dr. Anne Mangen and her team at the University of Stavanger in Norway discovered that when writing by hand, there is a greater a connection between what you feel with your body and what you understand. Therefore writing down your worrisome thoughts or negative emotions will help you make sense of your emotionally charged experience.
Write by hand
Computers dominate our lives. We prefer tying at the keyboard because we are used to it. However, when it comes to expressing your emotions, the pen is mightier than the keyboard.
Writing by hand stimulates the brain in a different way than using a keyboard. Your brain receives feedback from your arm muscles and fingertips, which makes the experience more physical. It helps you rearrange your memories and emotional experiences.
When you write by hand, you exert more physical and mental effort. This stimulates different regions of your brain. Moreover, as writing by hand is slower than typing, your unconscious mind has more time to filter out undesirable thoughts.
Moreover, your subconscious mind works best with symbols and metaphors. Writing by hand becomes a symbolic act to pour down on the paper all your worries and thoughts. This way you build an emotional distance from the distressful events.
How to do it
If you have worrisome thoughts or some emotionally charged issue that causes you anxiety, here is an assignment that you can perform for two weeks:
Commit to do the following assignment for two weeks in order to notice the benefits. It is important that you follow the instructions to the letter.
Set aside 30 minutes to one hour a day to do this task. Make sure you are alone. Avoid listening to music so you can concentrate on the task.
Set an alarm clock for the allotted time. Take several white papers and start writing by hand.
Write all your thoughts and feelings. Let your mind wander freely and write anything that worries you. Just write any emotional issue, any negative memory or even traumatic experiences that have not been healed yet. It could be a fight you had with your sister or brother or even a death of someone you loved.
As you write, let go of your analytical and judgmental mind. Just write down all your thoughts and emotions without censuring them. Any word or expression is valid. Therefore you can write whatever thoughts that pops up in your mind, even if they are nasty words.
No need to write in an orderly fashion. You can jump from one issue to another, or from the present to the past and to the future. Any issue is ok: yourself, partner, friends, parents, relatives, etc.
You can l go of any emotion. If you feel like crying, cry! If you get angry and feel like shouting, shout! As you write let go of your emotions and express them.
Since you will be writing every day you can repeat certain topics or issues. You can write about the same issues or experiences over again, or write about different topics each day.
Remember you are not writing an essay. It is an emotional, expressive and intuitive writing. So you are allowed to make spelling and grammar mistakes.
Start writing and when the alarm goes off, stop writing!
After the alarm goes off, avoid reading what you wrote. Tear up the papers and throw them out. This way your writing is confidential.
Some people may fear that concentrating on negative thoughts would make them worse. This will not happen because you dedicate a very specific time to it that has a beginning and an end. In this way your mind learns to start and stop negative thought by will. This will give you more control over your worrisome thoughts. Even though the assignment is counterintuitive, the results are positive and beneficial.
As Lao Tse put it: “To reduce something, one must deliberately expand it; to weaken something, one must deliberately strengthen it; to eliminate something, one must let it flourish.”
In our common language often people use the terms “difficulty” and “problem” interchangeably. Although at first they may appear synonymous, these two terms have different meanings, and we must make a distinction to make more sense of our life challenges. The distinction is crucial when we want to overcome a difficulty or solve a problem.
The first people who made this distinction were the researchers at Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California. In their groundbreaking book, Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch (1974) define each term and explain why it is so important to make such a distinction.
They define a difficulty as an “undesirable state of affairs” that can be solved with common sense strategies. However, problems are deadlocks and impasses that have resisted common sense solutions, and thus need special problem-solving skills.
Let’s look at an example of a difficulty. Imagine that your boss asks you to present a work project to the rest of the team at the office. You are not too keen of speaking to a crowd but you have no choice but to stand in front of an audience of fifty co-workers and talk. You feel anxious about it and don’t know what to do.
A week before the presentation date, a friend teaches you several techniques such as deep breathing, relaxation and mindfulness meditation. You practice these techniques one hour a day for seven days. On the day of the presentation you apply your newly learned skills with great success. You manage to keep calm and deliver your speech.
Now let’s see an example of a problem. A friend of yours has been struggling with anxiety for several months. Certain places or occasions cause her much anxiety and fear. She has tried many different common sense solutions such as avoidance, relaxation, distraction, etc. They all have failed. You explain to her how you managed to beat your anxiety with mindfulness meditation and suggest her to try it. She diligently practices it for several weeks but cannot let go of her anxiety as deep breathing does little to help her.
Wasn’t mindfulness meditation effective for you? Didn’t help you overcome your anxiety? Then, what went wrong? Is something wrong with your friend? Is there some quemical imbalance in her brain?
The answer is that the common sense solutions to a difficulty do very little to solve a problem. Your anxiety was a difficulty yet the anxiety of your friend is a problem. You suffered from a temporary uneasy feeling while your friend was chronically and constantly feeling ill-at-ease.
This means that we must also make a distinction between two very different kinds of change. When we take different actions but nothing changes versus those counterintuitive strategies that solve the problem.
According to Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974): “There are two kinds of change, one that occurs within a given system which in turns remains unchanged, and one whose occurrence changes the system.”
At the first level of change, when we apply common sense solutions, the system remains unchanged even though there are changes happening within it. This is the case of your friend trying meditation.
At the second level, the counterintuitive solutions have the power to change the system itself.
Often it is not easy to know what kind of actions are needed. An easy way of getting closer to a real solution is to block your common sense solutions! For two week put aside your
Let see an illustrative example from the same book, Change. Imagine that you are having a nightmare. To end your despair and anxiety, you can take many common sense actions such as run away, hide, scream, fight, jump off a cliff, etc. However, the nightmare would not be affected because all these actions are more of the same. They may appear different but they fall into the same category. You have taken several actions that take place within the dream but none of them would terminate the nightmare. This is called first-order change.
In order to make the change at the second level, in order to change the system, you need a solution that takes you from dreaming to waking. This is called second-order change.
Ask yourself: “Is my anxiety a difficulty or a problem?” Now ask yourself what kind of solution you are applying.