June 22, 2016

A Highly Effective Approach to Treating Anxiety and Mood Issues – Dr. Andrea Stone

young female listening to music“Don’t sweat your thoughts and teach your mind to take a break!”

I yelled this out with enthusiasm in a group the other day and, as I predicted, I got a lot of blank stares that I read as… “What in the world is this lady talking about?”

The group members took this statement very literally and laughed out loud. I knew I needed to use the “tug-of–war” metaphor from the Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety (Forsyth & Eifert, 2007) to explain.

How to manage negative thoughts

Negative thoughts are the mind’s attempt to falsely promise that, if we do as our thoughts say, we will be protected from harm’s way. “Not sweating our thoughts” is how we can quiet this oftentimes shaming, frightening, and harsh mind’s chatter.

I asked for a volunteer to play a game of “tug-a-war” with the negative thought of their choice, a type of thought that I like to call a “thought bully”.

Thought bully: (n.) A negative thought that stems from depression, anxiety, trauma, insecurity, helplessness, low self-esteem, addiction, etc.

In the game, I pretended to be the negative thought and handed them the other end of the rope to play themselves. The group member chose “I’m worthless” as their negative thought.

I began to pull on the rope, encouraging the volunteer to pull as hard as they could, to try to win. The “thought bully” taunted — promising, “if you win at this game of tug of war, then I will go away forever! And you will never feel this pain again!”

The truth is, battling with your “thought bully” is exhausting. And, one of the hardest things to accept is that this “thought bully” is actually tireless; it will always beat you in the game. As we continue to fight and pull with all of our might, the “thought bully” is constantly pulling back with greater force, immobilizing and embroiling you in this back and forth. Sadly, this can cause you to miss out on valuable things in your life.

The solution to overcoming this vicious cycle and ending this tug-of-war is that YOU must drop the rope!

I finally tell my volunteer to “drop the rope.” With trepidation, she considers this radical approach to address her “thought bully.” However, she finally drops the rope and stands there with anticipation and bewilderment asking, “what now?”

Focus on meaning

Think of all the experiences you can have when you are not immersed in this type of tug of war with your negative thoughts:
  • You can be present in your daily life
  • You can begin projects that you have been putting aside because your thoughts told you that you would fail.
  • You can spend time with your partner who came home to surprise you, your child who wants you to play hide and seek, or your dear friend who has just called and is in need of support.
Wouldn’t these activities be much more meaningful than being pushed around, taunted, and mocked by your thoughts?

Know when to drop the rope

At Insight Behavioral Health Center, we teach our patients to recognize when they are playing “tug-of-war.” We teach them how to drop the rope and how to stop sweating their thoughts.

We also recommend that our patients learn mindfulness-based skills. With mindfulness, the negative thoughts won’t go away, but, due to our change in response, they will get quieter. The “thought bully” will lose its competitive drive because there is no one competing with it.

You will, of course, pick up the game of tug-of-war from time to time. However, with effort and practice, you will quickly recognize it and will be able to drop the rope and let it be. With time, you can eventually learn how to simply acknowledge your thoughts, be curious about them and let the negative ones “be” while you go about your day and engage in meaningful connection and activity. Eventually your mind will thank you for giving it a break, too.

Can you imagine dropping your rope? How do you feel when you consider this?

Get more tips about managing anxiety.

Andrea Stone, PsyD is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at Insight Behavioral Health Center with locations in Illinois and Austin, in partnership with Eating Recovery Center.
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