How to Stop Freaking Out

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Dealing With Intrusive Thoughts

I don't know about you, but I've lost a lot of sleep in 2020 and now 2021, too, because I can’t stop thinking about all the craptastic things that have happened in the past year.

It's taken all the tools in my toolbox to use healthy habits to cope instead of my not-so-healthy ones (Hello salty and sweet snacks. Hello shopping. Hello Netflix. Hello Bota Box, a.k.a. Wine Fountain I'm talking to you.)

Turns out, I'm not alone.

Adam Radomsky, a psychology professor at Concordia, and a team of researchers from 15 other universities in 13 different countries and 6 continents conducted a study on intrusive thoughts.

They found that 94 percent of people experienced unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or impulses. The big difference between us is how we deal with the intrusive thoughts.

If you try to tell yourself, “Stop thinking that!” It will not work. At all. Just try this two-part experiment to see what I mean. I invite you to get yourself nice and cozy. Put your feet flat on the floor and wiggle them around a bit. Feel all four corners of your feet. You might pick up your toes and put them back down.

Breathe all the way into the belly.

Part 1: Bring into your imagination a white bear as vividly as you can. Do you see it? Can you imagine it? What details do you notice about your white bear? Close your eyes and really imagine the bear.

When you’re ready, move on to the second part.

Part 2: Now do everything in your power to NOT think about a white bear. I mean it. DO NOT THINK ABOUT A WHITE BEAR. Set a timer for one minute or three minutes and see if you can keep your thoughts away from the white bear. When you’re finished, return to this page.

Well? What happened? Were you able to do it? I’m guessing it was a struggle. What’s really fascinating about this, is that when we’re actively trying to repress something in the mind, it will pop back up to the surface like a balloon underwater.

Social scientist Daniel Wegner was a professor of psychology at Harvard University who studied the so-called “white bear phenomenon” and our inability to stop thinking about something we tell ourselves not to think about.

He discovered that not thinking about things you tell yourself not to think about is even harder when people are under stress.
Hello 2020 / 2021.

Luckily, there are many ways to switch out those pesky thoughts we don’t want. Here’s two of my favorites.

Step 1: Acknowledge Your Emotions

Don't try to fight the negative thoughts. Instead, make friends with them. Put your hands on your heart and say to yourself, "Yep, I'm freaking out right now and I really want to snarf down another [Insert favorite go-to painful feelings reliever here]. I feel your pain, and yes, you can still have [Insert favorite go-to painful feelings reliever here] tomorrow if you still want it."

Step 2: Distract Yourself

After acknowledging your feelings, give your brain something else to focus on. Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring an image of a scene that relaxes you into your imagination or look at a physical image of something gorgeous.
  • Listen closely to beautiful music.
  • Go for a walk outside in which you give yourself an assignment to play close attention to the colors and textures of things you see.

I've used mindfulness practices like these to help myself learn The Art of The Return, which is the ability to return your attention to something again and again, on purpose. This skill can help you reduce stress and anxiety, boost your resilience and help you prevent burnout. It can also help you achieve hard goals.

Doing this two-step exercise consistently will help distract your brain like you’re training a little puppy. And best of all—it will help the part of you that's freaking out calm down so you can finally get some good sleep.

Want more ideas? Get in touch at Heartwood Healing or connect with Jacquelyn Fletcher Johnson on LinkedIn here.