We know from a 1987 paper, Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression, (1) by Dr. Wegner out of Harvard, that the more you try not to think about something the more you will think about it. The paper has been nicknamed, “White Bears.” This not news to any of us. But he also demonstrated that there was a trampoline effect, in that you think about it a lot more. When you frame this discussion in terms of neurological pathways instead of psychology this phenomenon becomes a huge problem. Disruptive thoughts progress with age.
You are not your thoughts
You are not your thoughts. Skilled meditators are able to connect deeply with the environment and detach from their thoughts. I tried this technique for years and could not achieve a high enough level of skill to calm me down; then I discovered “active meditation”. For those of you that are in the mindfulness world this is not a new concept. However, re-framing these tools in these terms has been helpful for me. Here is the conversation I have with my patients on a daily basis.
“You cannot control your mind with your mind. When your mind is racing your body will be tense and tight. Different organ systems will respond in their own specific way. The harder you try to force yourself to calm down, the faster your brain will spin.
One of the foundational concepts of treating Neurophysiological Disorder (NPD) is that neurological pathways are deeply imbedded, including anxiety and pain. As you cannot fix or repair them one alternative is to shift off of them and on to more functional and enjoyable circuits. Placing your attention on sensory input from your environment can quickly and easily do this. Any sense works – sound, smell, taste, feel, pressure, sight, etc.”
There are three steps that are from Eastern philosophy.
- Focusing on a sensation
I learned them at a meditation retreat given by Alan Wallace, a prominent researcher in integrating Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science.
Active mediation in clinic
I practice this daily while on the run, including performing surgery. If I am a little wound up during clinic, I will do it with my patients. We all sit back in our chairs, let our shoulders sag and jaws relax. We take a deep breath and let it go. (Relaxation). We then let ourselves stay relaxed for 5-10 seconds (stabilization), while I have them listen to the ventilation system. Then we shift our attention to people’s voices outside the door, to our feet on the floor, and back to the vent. It all takes about a minute. Invariably everyone in the room feels more relaxed. I can hear my voice change to a lower pitch. We have now shifted our attention off of our racing thoughts to the current moment through sensory awareness. It is an exercise that I encourage them to do often. Eventually, it becomes almost automatic.
The past is the past
You cannot change the past. Your thoughts will become more disruptive the harder you analyze and try to fix it. You also cannot fix yourself. However, you can shift your attention to the sensory input that is immediately in front of you. That is it and it is that simple. Unhooking from the Train
Another rendition of this tool is listening; I mean really listening in a way that you can visualize the other person’s perspective and realizing that the words they are saying to you mean something different to them than they do to you. It is remarkable how much more interesting the world is when you quit continually trying to impose your perspective on to it.
There are three steps in reprogramming your nervous system: awareness, detachment, and reprogramming. The simple writing exercise of writing down your negative thoughts and ripping them up accomplishes the awareness and detachment. The space between your thoughts on paper and you are now associated with vision and feel. Active mediation is a foundational reprograming tool.
Let the past go. It is over and done. You have been treated badly by many parties. You cannot take it personally. Let your attention settle on what is right in front of you. You have a precious gift of life. You might as well begin to enjoy it.
- Wegener, D.M., et al. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.