Changing your mind by force is futile. Do this instead.

by Julia Englund Strait Ph.D.

With COViD-19 and political battles still raging, it’s probably safe to say that almost everyone is feeling a little uneasy—albeit to different degrees and for different reasons. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. What do we do with all this discomfort? Should we try to make it go away?

Try not to think about a puppy. A fluffy, cuddly, smiley little puppy. He’s so cute. Look at that tiny little tongue. Those pleading eyes. NO! Don’t think about him.

Stop it! Why are you still thinking about that puppy? I told you not to.

Some research on trying to suppress the image of a white bear suggests that you’ll fare no better with that animal, either.

What we resist persists. The harder we fight against a thought, image, or feeling, the more voraciously it will fight back. Has anyone ever told you “Don’t worry!” What about, “Just try not to think about it”? How did that work for you?

I don’t know about you, but when I wake up with an irritated, depressed, or anxious weight on my chest, attempts to analyze or stop it have been met with approximately zero success. The same is true for my therapy patients, who have waning patience for friends and family members who just want them to “cheer up.”

Don’t you think if we could stop our thoughts, or change our feelings, by sheer force of will…we would?

You can’t actually suppress your thoughts…not for very long, at least. And you certainly can’t change the way you feel like changing the TV channel. That’s partly because you aren’t the one who came up with these thoughts and feelings to begin with…at least not deliberately or consciously.

We are always fielding large amounts of data from the environment, our bodies, our memories, and from other people. We are constantly filtering, attending, ignoring, synthesizing, and remembering. Although it may feel deliberate that you just thought of a great idea for your next (post-COVID) vacation, where did that idea really come from? What about the feeling of excitement that came with it? Did you really create that from scratch? Did you choose to feel excited?

Don’t Be Nervous

When you got nervous before your last test or presentation, did you say to yourself, “Gee, I’d love to feel super anxious right now!”

The last time you woke up still reeling from a nightmare about your worst fear, did you say to yourself, “Oh yeah! I forgot that I wanted to think about humiliation and terror all night. Totally my bad”?

That’s just not how our minds work. What you think is control over what you’re thinking and feeling is somewhat of an illusion.

The fire hose of data streaming in at all times gets filtered through thoughts and histories. And that’s how we end up with an emotional experience. Sure, some of those bits may yield to a push here or a pull there. But much of the raw material that creates our emotional experience is automatic, implicit, and outside the realm of conscious control.

Julia Strait

Beware of flaming puppies.Source: Julia Strait

We can’t control our thoughts or emotions, but we can choose how we see them. How we view the things that cross our minds, in turn, affects how we respond. And an unavoidable but understandable feeling is easier to work with than one that we blame ourselves for having, or for being unable to stop.

Next time you find yourself thinking about that pink puppy, then–or more likely, an 8-foot-tall raging grizzly bear–try just letting it be. No need to fight it, argue with it, or push it to the dark, dusty corners of your mind. See it for what it is: A curious amalgam of history, hopes, and biological reactions, fed by attention but arriving without your consent. Remember that you didn’t choose it: It just showed up here. And if you can treat it that way, rather than getting caught up in fighting it off, you’ll find that it often leaves you just as curiously as it came.

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