Managing Difficult Thoughts and Feelings

It’s not hard for most of us to get rid of unwanted thoughts & feelings – when they’re mild. When we’re a little anxious, a little angry, a little sad, we usually can ignore those feelings or distract ourselves or think positively, and make ourselves feel better.

But the more intense and painful our difficult thoughts and feelings are, the harder it becomes to do this. For example, if we’re mildly upset about something, and we eat some yummy food – chocolate or chips or ice-cream or whatever tickles our tastebuds – most of us will find that the tasty food successfully distracts us from our unpleasant feelings. 

But if we’re EXTREMELY upset about something, and we use this same distraction strategy, we’re likely to fail. Most of us will find we can barely taste the food in our mouth, and there’s little or no real pleasure in it.

Likewise, if we’re a bit worried or anxious about something that’s not a major threat or a significant risk, then thinking logically and rationally about it (i.e. carefully assessing the facts and calculating the real risks), or doing a simple relaxation technique (e.g. some slow breathing), will, for most of us, rapidly lower our anxiety and help us calm down and stop worrying. 

But if we’re EXTREMELY anxious about something that truly is a major threat or a very real and significant risk, these types of strategies just won’t work. If you are going into hospital for major surgery for a life-threatening condition, how likely is it that a bit of positive thinking, relaxation, or distraction is going to get rid of all your anxiety about that? For sure, you may get a bit of short term relief from such methods, but how long would it last before the anxiety returns?

Another example could be: if someone you love very much were dying, could you stop yourself from feeling sad, angry or scared? For most human beings, there are only two ways you could do this. One way, would be to completely numb yourself with drugs or alcohol. 

The other way would be to completely cut off from your own emotions, which is technically called ‘dissociation’, which usually gives rise to an unpleasant sense of emptiness or hollowness.

So what we are learning is that when our problems and challenges are minor, and our painful emotions are mild, it’s relatively easy (most of the time) to avoid, distract, escape from, or get rid of, unwanted thoughts and feelings. But the bigger our challenges, and the more intense our emotions, the harder it will be to do this.

This is why we need to learn mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion skills. So we can respond more flexibly to painful thoughts and feelings. 

So we can open up and make room for them. Instead of fighting against them, we can make peace with them. We can let them flow through us, allowing them to come and stay and go in their own good time. These skills don’t come naturally or easily – but it’s well worth investing the time and effort to learn them. I’ll be talking more about this in my upcoming blogs, so stay tuned!


Dr. Russ Harris

4 Oct 2017

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