The video below explains some of the consequences that arise when we aren’t careful about how we manage our emotions and other negative experiences, and how the way we react to our emotions can cause us to suffer:
When we’re feeling distressed about something or going through a difficult emotional experience it can feel like our thoughts are running out of control. Our minds start racing and we find ourselves dwelling in the past, worrying about the future, or just spinning our wheels trying to think ourelves out of our problems.
At times, our thoughts can become so powerful and consuming that it’s difficult to focus on anything else. Reading, being productive at work, or even just carrying on a conversation seems impossible. The thoughts become so persistent that nothing can distract us from them and nothing else can hold our attention, and it can feel like there isn’t anything we can do to slow down these thoughts or get some peace of mind.
Because it’s natural to want thoughts like these to go away and to have some control over what’s going on inside our heads, we often wind up trying to will these thoughts away and shut them out completely. But just like we can’t control our emotions, nor suppress our emotions, neither can we control or suppress our thoughts.
In a previous post we looked at some ways to practice letting go of thoughts, but it can often be difficult to let of thoughts because they have such a powerful pull, especially when the thoughts are related to a strong emotion.
In this post we’re going to look at some things you can do to get some separation from your thoughts when your emotions are particularly strong and you’re having some thoughts you’re finding hard to let go.
Steven Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), coined the term “cognitive fusion” to describe times when we are so tightly stuck to our thoughts, we become “fused” to them. When we’re experiencing cognitive fusion, we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts. Our thoughts become our reality. We feel removed from the world outside of our thoughts, removed from our senses, from what we’re doing, and even from the people around us.
In a recent post we looked at how mindfulness can help us let go of our thoughts when we get caught up in ruminating or worrying or just thinking in circles. Letting go of thoughts is never easy, however, and in this post we’ll look at how simply watching our thoughts can help us let them go.
Thoughts pop into our heads all the time, and usually we don’t pay any special attention to them: they enter and leave our minds all on their own, just like a car that drives into our line of sight, remains in our field of vision for a few moments, and then drives along and passes out of our line of sight again.
- external events outside our control
- spontaneous emotions, thoughts and memories
- pain or physical sensations
Generally, if you’re experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, you don’t want it to stick around. That’s because it’s uncomfortable, of course. Ironically, this desire to get rid of unpleasant emotions can cause you to behave in ways that cause the emotion to stick around or even to become more intense.
A type of therapy called Positive Psychology, has been gaining popularity as research continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of positive psychology in helping people feel better and increase their well-being. Compared to many other approaches to therapy, positive psychology focuses less on identifying and fixing deficits, and more on recognizing and building on positives—looking at “What’s right with you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”
In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Martin Seligman writes:
We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.
Have you ever felt anxious and noticed yourself being extra vigilant, looking for any signs that something bad may be lurking nearby, on the lookout for all the things you might need to worry about?
This may seem like a good way to protect yourself from the things you’re anxious about, but it usually backfires. Since there is never any end to the list of “what ifs?” you can find to worry about, if you’re constantly looking out for things that could go wrong, you’ll usually find them, and this keeps you in a state of worry and anxiety.
Or have you ever been depressed, and found yourself focused on all of the negative things in your life, trying to figure out how they happened and how to solve them? Again, this sounds like a good way to fix what’s wrong in your life, but it often ends up making things worse. You keep finding more and more things to regret, more disappointments, more ways you don’t measure up to other people, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the negatives that keep adding up.
The more we’re on the lookout for something, the more likely we are to find it. But just as it is easy to find things to worry about or feel badly about when that’s what we’re focused on, it’s also easy to find some things to feel good about when that’s what we’re looking for and paying attention to.