Let me ask you some questions about your thoughts.

  • Do you think too much, feel like your head is so full of thoughts it exhausts you?
  • Are your thoughts too often worry ruminations that you can’t control?
  • Is your self-talk overly harsh, in which you beat up on or say nasty things about yourself?

If so, today’s post is relevant to you. In one way or another you’re victimized by your own thoughts. Of course, I can equally say that you are victimizing yourself, for both are true: you’re victim and victimizer. These problem cognitions, whatever their nature, often lead to dysphoric emotions which in turn often lead to maladaptive cognitive and behavioral strategies to minimize the distress. Notice the circularity: dysphoria-inducing cognitions, such as chronic worry, lead to maladaptive cognitive strategies, which are just different kinds of dysphoria-inducing cognitions. In effect, when you try to escape dysphoria-inducing thoughts you can engage in strategies that include more dysphoria-inducing thoughts – you’re trying to put out the fire by pouring gasoline on it.

These maladaptive thought control strategies designed to minimize distress include:

  • Cognitive punishment: engaging in negative thoughts leads to deprecating self-talk, such as, “Don’t be such an idiot. Just stop this stupid worrying all the time!” Not only does approach not stop the original negative thoughts, but it further negatively emotionalizes the thoughts and increases the motivation to get rid of them, thus increasing the problem.
  • Thought suppression: a person attempts to consciously suppress their negative thoughts. The problem is that it is not possible to engage in thought suppression without thinking about both the original negative thoughts and the process of attempted thought suppression. It’s like telling oneself not to think of a pink elephant, which through the process of telling yourself that, brings the very topic of a pink elephant into mind.
  • Distraction: distraction includes both attentional and behavioral focus on another activity, such as shopping, talking with friends, working, watching porn, masturbating, etc. Distraction is often temporarily effective when the distracting activity is compelling enough to capture the individual’s attention. As soon as there is a lull in the activity, however, the individual remembers the reason for engaging in the distracting activity, which brings to mind the original negative thoughts that person was distracting themselves from.
  • Worry: a person who worries often tells themselves (based on a mistaken belief) that focusing on the topic of worry is protective and adaptive, that it would be more dangerous not to keep the original negative thoughts in mind. This strategy does not work because worry is simply a trigger for more worry. This approach confuses the adaptive function of planning and preparing for anticipated threats and guarding against them with worry ruminations which often focus on imagined outcomes over which the person has no direct control. Simple example: instead of spending time studying for one’s board exam (adaptive approach), that person spends that time imagining how horrible it will be to fail (maladaptive approach). In another variant, the person distracts themselves from their worry ruminations with worry about a different topic. However, worry is still worry.

Breaking the Gordian Knot of Negative Thoughts

There are at least five different psychotherapies that directly focus on ameliorating maladaptive negative cognitions: Cognitive behavioral therapy, metacognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness-based psychotherapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. The first one, CBT, takes a different approach than the rest. In classic CBT the patient is taught to 1) attend to their negative cognitions and their nature and 2) challenge the logic of those thoughts. One elegant technique is to state the opposite of one’s worry rumination and ask oneself which one is more likely to occur, the worried-about outcome or its opposite.

The latter therapies start the same way. All the therapies here train the person to self-reflect on their worry, as an observing self who looks upon their thoughts as a product of their mind. This is called cognitive diffusion in learning theory. And whereas CBT then moves to challenging the thoughts, the other therapies teach the patient that the negative thoughts, as well as any other thoughts, are common and normal and require no self-protective response. The goal is not to try to stop having negative thoughts, challenging them, or constantly guarding against new ones (which of course serves to bring or keep negative thoughts in mind). Rather the goal is to change one’s relationship to one’s thoughts and view them not as core features of the self, not as necessarily true, and not as needing a response. The patient is taught to view thoughts as a passing product of the mind, coming and going, requiring no response. Exercises include having the patient imagine placing each thought that enters the mind on a cloud that drifts away across the sky or on a leaf that drifts down a stream. Fascinating ACT exercise include repeating a feared or self-deprecating thought quickly for thirty seconds; the sound of the words becomes drained of their meaning. Another exercise is to repeat one’s negative thoughts in a funny voice, like a cartoon character, to highlight the non-threatening nature of thoughts – any thoughts irrespective of their content.

To conclude: these therapies highlight that negative consequences of negative thoughts are not due directly to the negative thoughts themselves, but to the maladaptive coping strategies a person employs against them, like a minor allergen leading to an anaphylactic reaction.

Thanks. Let me know if you have anything on your mind I might be able to help with. Write with your advice on how to lead a more productive, invigorating, and joyful day.

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Until next time.

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
– Corrie Ten Boom

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”
– Dalai Lama

“Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life… My precept is, ‘Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something’.”
– Elizabeth Gaskell