Accepting Your Distressing Thoughts

What to Know

Many people spend a lot of time and energy trying to get rid of their upsetting thoughts and worries. Not so long ago, psychologists encouraged people to change their thoughts by making them more rational and reality-oriented or to just suppress them entirely with techniques like snapping a rubber band on their wrist and saying “Stop” in a loud voice.

Although these techniques worked for some people, they tended to have only a temporary effect, and many found that their intrusive thoughts and worries would come back, often worse than before.

The newest research in helping people who are overwhelmed by their worries and intrusive thoughts is to encourage people to stop trying to get rid of them at all! This may seem strange, because it is probably the opposite of what you feel like doing, and that is why therapists call this the anxiety paradox.

Therapists have discovered that the more you try to get rid of your thoughts, the harder it is to get rid of them. When you learn to accept them and detach from your thoughts, they will no longer have power over you.

For example, suppose someone told you to stop thinking about a pink elephant. Immediately you would probably get a visual image of a pink elephant, even though you were told not to do this.

The more you try not to think of a pink elephant, the more it comes to mind. This is the paradox in action: the more you try to get rid of specific thoughts, images, and memories, the more they will take control of your mind and even your actions.

So stop struggling with your worries! Just accept them. Don’t try to distract yourself. Don’t try to change your thoughts. Certainly, don’t try to dull your thoughts with drugs or alcohol. And don’t pretend that your anxieties and worries don’t exist.

Instead, as difficult as this sounds, just accept your worries, detach from them, and observe them without reacting to them in an emotional way. Try to objectify your worries, remembering that your thoughts are just thoughts, and they have no special powers.

This worksheet includes four metaphors that can help you understand and practice the principle of detaching from your worries by objectifying your thoughts and just observing them. After you read the different metaphors, you should practice using them several times a day.

Even if you are not worrying at the time, you should still practice using these visual metaphors.


What to Do

Do the following exercises and then answer the questions.

Don’t Struggle in Quicksand

When you struggle to get out of quicksand, you sink in deeper. When you relax and float, you will eventually find that you are able to swim or walk out of the quicksand. Contrary to popular movies, quicksand does not suck you down. Quicksand is usually shallow, and when you stop struggling it is easy to get out.

Try using this metaphor to stop resisting your worries. Imagine that your worries are a pool of quicksand. Struggling will make it harder for you to get out. Accepting your worries as just thoughts and not real dangers will rob them of their power. When you stop struggling, your worries lose their power over you.

Just walk away.

After you do this exercise, rate your anxiety from 1 to 10, where 1 = very anxious and 10 = very calm and disengaged from your worries: _______

Have you noticed that you feel less anxious after a visualization exercise? Describe your feelings.

How would you describe any changes in your moods during this week?

Act Opposite to Your Impulses

What to Know

Sometimes your emotions dictate how you behave. Perhaps you feel depressed, so you eat a pint of ice cream or other comfort food even though you are on a diet.

Perhaps you have a frustrating day, so you lash out at a loved one even though you know they are not the cause of your frustration. Or maybe you worry that people judge you, so you stay at home rather than going out with friends.

If you find your emotions are causing you to behave in ways that are self-defeating, use this ASSIGNMENT to track what happens if you do the opposite of what you would normally do.