Let it go, let it go!
So much easier sung than done…
The truth is there is one human trait that lies at the heart of many of the “mental health problems” that I see as a Clinical Psychologist.
That is our tendency to let our thoughts have too much power. Psychological therapy is often about learning to handle our thoughts differently.
Depression, anxiety, trauma and thoughts…
The human brain has evolved to be extremely good at predicting death, warning us about the possible routes to death and problem solving. This is a very good thing as it means that we have risen to the top of the food chain and can do amazing things that other animals can’t. It is this function of the mind that stops us from walking out into the street full of traffic, tells us it is best to sit down when the bus is moving etc.
The mind sends us warnings about danger and possible solutions to problems in the form of thoughts. Sometimes verbal thoughts, sometimes images and sometimes sensory experiences. These thoughts are designed to alert us to possible danger and tell us what to do about it. The trouble is when our problems are more sophisticated than having to run away from a tiger many of these thoughts can become really unhelpful.
This makes the most sense when we look at a common example. Someone suffering from travel anxiety following a car accident might have the recurring thought “I’m going to crash my car”. The mind has sent her that thought to try and protect her because it believes travelling in the car to be dangerous based on its past experiences. In response to her thought “I’m going to crash my car” the brain detects that she is under threat of harm and helpfully sets up the fight/flight response in the body leading her to feel tense, her heart rate to accelerate etc.
This happens because the oldest part of the brain, the bit that triggers fight/flight does not know the difference between thoughts and reality. It just reacts as fast as it can at the first sign of ANY threat, real or imagined. It has only one goal – to keep you alive. You can read more about that here.
If she tries to ignore the thought the mind will send her more and more similar thoughts because it thinks it is very important to warn her of the danger. If she tries to push the thought away by telling herself it isn’t true the mind is also likely to up the ante and start sending images to try and convince her of the danger. Both ignoring and trying to push away are therefore exhausting and ineffective.
The result is she is left thinking horrible thoughts and feeling tense and scared every time she gets behind the wheel of her car. Life is exhausting.
Many of us live like this much of the time. Our brains are busy trying to protect us from danger and the result is we feel anxious, worried, sad and depressed. This often makes it hard for us to live the lives we want to live. For example the lady with travel anxiety really wants to be there for her son’s school sports days but because she can’t face getting in the car she keeps missing them. Thanks brain!
What can we do about unhelpful thoughts?
Common sense often tells us that if we don’t like something we should try and get rid of it. The problem is that just doesn’t work when what we don’t like is our own thoughts and feelings. So, when you get thoughts that are difficult to handle, instead of fighting them it works best if you can learn to distance yourself from your thoughts. Let them float past you like leaves on a stream. If you can do this then the brain stops activating fight or flight as it gets the message that your thought isn’t a REAL threat that needs to be responded to.
But my thoughts ARE true!
Maybe…But are they helping you?
It may well be that your upsetting thoughts have a grounding in reality. The lady who has been in a car accident is, of course, right to note that there is some risk attached to travelling in a car. BUT the feelings of panic and fear she was getting as a result of letting this thought become so powerful were stopping her from living the life she wanted. Stepping back from the thought therefore isn’t about saying it isn’t true. It is about giving yourself the freedom to behave in the way you want to.
How to distance yourself from unhelpful thoughts
How on earth do I do I distance myself from my thoughts? They are in my head!!
There are actually lots of ways to do this. I spend time with my clients working through different exercises until we find one or two that work for them.
Here are a few of my personal favourites:
- You could meditate – the aim of mindfulness is to create that distance between you and your thoughts. A meditation might involve focusing on your breath for a while and then imagining attaching your thoughts to leaves that you then send gently down a stream.
- You can imagine the thoughts on a screen in front of you. Play with the font, size and spacing of the text. Move the words around on the screen and notice what effect that has on your response to it.
- Lemons, lemons, lemons…. You know when you say the same word over and over again it starts to lose its meaning? Well you can do the same thing with a thought that is hard to deal with. Just repeat the most upsetting word over and over (out loud is best) until it starts to sound silly.
- Sing it – choose a silly tune that you know well. For me at the moment it is the Mr Tumble theme tune (urgh!) and sing your unhelpful thought to it.
These techniques might sound a bit silly and people sometimes tell me they feel as though these methods are “making fun” of their upsetting thoughts. The thing is we are trying to tell our minds not to take our thoughts so seriously. We are trying to take a step back and give ourselves some space from our thoughts so we can get on with living life. These techniques can help us do that.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Separating from our thoughts is one of the most important parts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This is often called a “third wave” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as it is about the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour but the focus is on living the life you want to live rather than “getting rid” of symptoms. I like to work in this way with my clients because if we know how we want life to be it is so much easier to be motivated to put in the work to get there. You can read more about ACT in The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.