Many people spend a lot of time and energy trying to get rid of their upsetting thoughts and worries. The newest research in helping people who are overwhelmed by their worries and intrusive thoughts is to encourage people to stop playing tug-of-war with them. This may seem strange, because it is the opposite of what you feel like doing, and that is why therapists call this the “anxiety paradox.” Therapists have discovered that the more you try and get rid of your thoughts the harder it is to get rid of them. When you learn to accept them and detach from your thoughts, they will no longer have the same power over you.
If you find that your natural reaction is to feed into your worries, there is nothing wrong with you, in fact it’s got a lot to do with the nature of our physical brain.
No wonder the tug-of-war continues. You’re not weak, and you’re not doing it on purpose. Anxious thoughts hang on because they’re hard-wired to do so. This means, of course, that we will never truly win the game of tug-of-war. All hope is not lost, though. We do indeed have choices and control. We can choose to stop playing.
Current thinking is to stop struggling with your worries and just accept them. Don’t try to distract yourself. Don’t try and change your thoughts. Certainly, don’t try and dull your thoughts with drugs or alcohol. And don’t pretend that your anxieties and worries don’t exist.
Instead, as difficult as this sounds, just accept your worries, detach from them, and observe them without reacting to them in an emotional way. Try and “objectify” your worries, remembering that your thoughts are just thoughts, they have no special powers.
Below are three metaphors that can help you understand and practice the principle of detaching from your worries by objectifying your thoughts and just observing them. After you read the different metaphors, you should practice using them several times a day. Even if you are not worrying at the time, you should still practice using these visual metaphors.
Don’t Struggle in Quicksand
When you struggle to get out of quicksand you sink in deeper. When you relax and float, you will eventually find that you are able to swim or walk out of the quicksand. Contrary to popular movies, quicksand does not “suck you down.” Quicksand is usually shallow and when you stop struggling it is easy to get out. Try using this metaphor to stop resisting your worries. Imagine that your worries are a pool of quicksand. Struggling will make it harder for you to get out. Accepting your worries as just thoughts and not real dangers will rob them of their power. When you stop struggling, your worries lose their power over you. Just walk away.
Watching the Worry Train
Imagine that your worries are on a train. Each car contains a different worry. Visualise each car of the train and then think for a moment about the worry that is in each car. Now sit back and visualize this train pull out of the station. Watch it as it rounds the bend and then continues on a journey out of sight. Relax and visualise this metaphor. Then rate how you feel.
Clouds Floating By
Think about something that you are worried about. Say this worry out loud and visualise the worst thing that could happen. Now take a photo in your mind of that worry. Imagine that photo is resting on a cloud. Don’t do anything to make the cloud go away, but just let it go where it wants. Watch it from the ground and see what happens to it.
PARENTS BEYOND BREAKUP recognises that during times of severe situational distress, even the simplest tasks can feel impossible and overwhelming. If the internal tug-of-war is getting the better of you, please call our helpline or join one of online or in person support groups.