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Blocking Thoughts: Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Blocking Thoughts: Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It By Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. Every one of us knows what it s like to be plagued by an unpleasant or
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30, 2011
      Blocking Thoughts: Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It
      By Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.

      Every one of us knows what it's like to be
      plagued by an unpleasant or unwanted thought.
      It could be a nagging self-doubt, a disturbing
      story from the evening news or the humiliation
      of being recently rejected by a potential love
      interest. Try as you might to block it out, the
      image or feeling pops up over and over again.
      It makes you miserable and leaves you feeling
      very much a virtual prisoner of your own cruel mind.

      Most people believe that there really isn't much
      you can do about it -- that on some level, these
      thoughts must need to happen, and that trying to
      block them out is pointless. The good news is that
      most people are wrong. You absolutely can block
      out painful, unwanted or counterproductive thoughts
      if you are armed with the right strategies. And
      I got a chance to put them to the test once again
      very recently, when I shut the bathroom door on
      the index finger of my 4-year old daughter Annika.

      It was very, very bad. Her finger had been near
      the hinge where the force was greatest, so the tip
      was fractured and, the surgeon told me later,
      nearly severed. Immediately after it happened,
      I scooped up my shoeless daughter and her 2-year-old
      brother, still in his pajamas, and ran out into
      the New York City streets frantically searching
      for a cab. We spent the next four hours in the ER.

      By the time we got back to our apartment, Annika
      was once again all smiles and sunshine. Her surgeon
      had assured us that she would heal quickly and
      that there would be no lasting damage. Remarkably,
      she wasn't even in any pain. Once she was settled
      in on the sofa with her dad and brother and a big
      bowl of ice cream, I took the dog for a long walk
      in the park and bawled my eyes out. (Thank goodness
      New Yorkers avoid eye contact. Maybe nobody noticed.)

      As terrible as it is as a parent to cope with any
      injury to your child, there's a very special
      kind of anguish in knowing that you were the
      one who caused it.

      Now, I knew perfectly well that it was an accident,
      and that accidents happen to everyone (even neurotically
      safety-obsessed moms like me). I knew that there
      was really nothing to be gained from dwelling on
      what happened. But the next day, even though Annika
      was playful and pain-free, I still felt awful. From
      moment to moment, I cycled through the hit parade
      of negative emotions: guilt, anxiety, depression,
      self-loathing. I couldn't enjoy playing with my
      children, I couldn't concentrate on anything. I
      couldn't even feel the joy and relief that you'd
      have thought I would feel knowing that my daughter
      was happy and on the mend.

      The problem was that memories of what happened
      kept popping up in my mind. I would see the terror
      in her eyes, remember my own panic and struggle
      to stay calm, relive the moment where I had started
      to close the door and wish I had just looked down
      to see her standing there. I knew that I was going to
      continue to feel terrible unless I could rid myself
      of these unwanted, painful thoughts. Fortunately,
      I knew just what to do.

      Blocking out (or "suppressing") a thought is
      challenging, because a blocked thought tends to
      rebound -- in other words, it can come back later
      with a vengeance once you've let your guard down.
      The most well-known account of why rebounding
      happens comes from ironic monitoring theory. The
      idea is that while you are blocking out a thought
      (for instance, trying to rid yourself of thoughts
      of "white bears"), part of your brain is actively
      searching for any thoughts of white bears so it can
      immediately shut them down.

      That active search creates an ironic effect --
      it makes white bear thoughts more accessible, so
      that once you let your guard down and stop blocking,
      the thoughts come rushing back. Now all you can
      think about is white bears.

      For a long time, psychologists believed that
      allowing yourself to go ahead and think about
      white bears was the only solution; eventually,
      since your brain wasn't on the lookout for these
      thoughts and actively trying to block them anymore,
      they would fade. But thoughts can be blocked,
      without rebounding. To do that, there are two things
      you need to know.

      First, remember that blocking a thought is always
      a bit difficult, no matter what the thought is.
      But just because it's hard, that does not mean
      that, on some level, you need to think that
      particular thought. Your brain doesn't necessarily
      have a hidden agenda. The real irony is that believing
      that it does is actually what creates rebound! In
      other words, you will continue to be haunted by a
      thought if you give the difficulty you have blocking
      it out more meaning and importance than it deserves.

      In fact, in a series of studies, psychologists Jens
      Foerster and Nira Liberman found that if they
      explained to people in advance, before they blocked
      out a thought, that it is always difficult to block
      any thought, there was no rebounding whatsoever.
      Blocked thoughts actually stayed blocked. The white
      bears never returned.

      So the first step to blocking an unwanted thought
      is really embracing the idea that you don't really
      need to think it.

      Second, you need a strategy for handling the thought
      when it does come. A good if-then plan is just
      what the doctor ordered for coping with unwanted
      thoughts and disruptive feelings.

      The key is to plan out, in advance what you will
      do when the thought pops up in your mind. It can
      be as simple as saying to yourself, "If the thought
      comes, then I will ignore it." Some may prefer to
      replace the unwanted thought or feeling with a more
      positive one. In one study, tennis players who constantly
      were plagued by pre-match anxiety and self-doubt
      these thoughts with the plan, "If I doubt myself,
      then I will remember all the times I've won in
      the past."

      For me, the plan, "If I think about the accident,
      then I will picture Annika's smiling face when
      it was all over," was amazingly effective. As I
      practiced it over and over again throughout the
      day, whenever those terrible visions paid a visit,
      I felt their power over me melting away. Their
      visitations grew less and less frequent. I was able
      to feel happy again and see that my little girl
      had long since forgiven me for what had happened.
      It finally felt OK to start forgiving myself, too.

      Now, I am not saying that we should go around
      blocking out all the unpleasant thoughts that come
      our way. There are times when we do truly need to
      reflect on the bad things that happen to us, to
      understand their significance, to come to terms
      with our feelings, and to learn and grow from our
      experiences. But when there really isn't anything
      to be gained from reflection -- when a thought
      simply prolongs pain -- it's good to know that
      there really is a way to rid yourself of it and move on.

      J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.
      S. Koole & A. van Knippenberg (2007) Controlling your mind without ironic consequences: Self-affirmation eliminates rebound effects after thought suppression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 671-677.

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