Thoughts in the morning…
In the quiet, cool moment between my alarm clock going off and my dogs realizing they are alive yet again and excited about it, my brain has a window of opportunity to throw my entire day off. You need more sleep, my brain whispers to me. If that doesn’t work, my brain is likely to read off a list of all the terrible, awful, unavoidable, personal news headlines that will occur during the day:
- Local man crashes car on the way to work – extra hour of sleep could have avoided problem
- Problem you didn’t realize happened suddenly your fault
- Today – 32 years of people pretending to like you to end
The more I believe the headlines, the easier it is to drift back to sleep. Nothing bad happens in my sleep – I can’t crash my car, nobody can yell at me, I am blissfully unaware of how people actually feel about me. However, nothing meaningful happens in my sleep, either – I can’t push my body towards something greater, I can’t read a good book, I can’t work towards a promotion at work. Before I can make a definitive decision whether to wake up or not, my dogs typically march down the length of my body, stand on my chest and tap out Morris code on my forehead:
I usually get up before the full message gets across.
My week of thoughts
Over the past week I have been trying to be more aware and watchful of my thoughts. This practice has been, in a word, exhausting. It has also been pretty eye-opening. My brain is wonderfully predictable if I just slow down enough to listen to it.
At the start of this experiment – I narrowed the monitoring time to while I run. My brain likes to shout reasons to stop running: You can’t run up this hill because it’s too hot, you shouldn’t run hard during this part because you got tired yesterday, you’ve never been able to hit this time because you are just too slow. It’s like I have a nervous co-pilot; a C-3PO running the odds and warning of certain, unavoidable doom. When these thoughts happen, I tend to notice a shift in my emotions. I feel frustrated. I feel angry. When I feel frustrated or angry, I want to stop. When I stop, I tend to feel more frustrated, which makes me want to quit.
As the week went on my observation period expanded to my time at the gym. Gym workouts give my brain a much longer leash, allowing it to create way more interference. I think it is because there is more safety at the gym: I am resting between sets, I am running on a treadmill in front of a fan, I am never more than 20 feet from a water fountain. When I’m on the road, it feels life-or-death. The stakes are high, my brain tends to toe the line and my thoughts are more survival based. At the gym, my brain can strut and shout and try to really screw things up.
The midweek, early evening crowd at the JCC gym is an eclectic assortment of people with varying objectives, methods and opinions about gym etiquette. During the first day of gym study, I was stepping underneath the bar to do squats when a man carrying a 25lb weight sat on the ground immediately behind my feet. With loud huffs, grunts and strangely sensual moans, he began doing aggressive twists – slamming that weight on the ground to either side of his body. To paint a picture – I am slightly leaning forward, the bar with 190lbs is on my shoulders and I am about to lift it. As I lift the weight and step backwards, a man I have never met sits down on the ground behind my feet and starts twisting like an asshole. My brain loves to dish out judgments while I struggle through a workout. What the fuck is this person doing? Who are you trying to impress? Why are you so close to me? This person is awful.
All these thoughts, mind you, are understandable. I am not a crazy person for thinking this is a strange, wildly dangerous thing to do. These thoughts are also woefully unhelpful. As I stood there, staring at him, my brain began to shotgun blast judgments across the gym: Why are they wearing that? Whose child is this? GET OFF YOUR GOD DAMNED PHONE?
I suddenly felt the incredible urge to go home. I wanted to abandon the entire workout, grab my stuff, go home and give up on the day.
What is the problem with unhelpful thinking
Thoughts are difficult because the can either be intentional or automatic. We like to think we are in control of ourselves – choosing our thoughts and our behaviors. Unfortunately, there is a whole barrel full of thoughts you and I have every day that are automatic and that pop-up outside of our conscious intention. We like to believe we can 100% control our brain and we feel frustrated when our thoughts don’t do what we ask.
There are two significant consequences to unhelpful thinking that can radically alter the course of our behavior: decreases in coping self-efficacy and increases in unpleasant emotions.
Coping self-efficacy: In a nut-shell, coping self-efficacy is our belief in our own ability to cope. If we believe we can handle a stressor (based on current mood, evaluation of the stress, past learning, etc.) we are much more likely to proactively deal with the problem. If we feel like we can’t handle the stress, we are much more likely to avoid/withdraw. A way to think about it – if we think we can do well, we want to maximize how well we do. If, however, we think we can’t do well, we want to minimize how badly we fuck something up. If we have high self-efficacy with regards to eating (I can handle my cravings), then we are more likely to stick to our diet, shop smart and proactively plan meals. If we have low self-efficacy (I can’t stand being hungry) then we will much more quickly cheat on our diets, give in to temptation or make decisions that could lead to abandoning our dieting goals.
Heightened coping self-efficacy also plays a role in our pain sensitivity. Those who display higher coping self-efficacy (specific pain SE as well as general SE) tend to have much higher pain tolerances than those who do not. If we feel like we can handle pain/discomfort, our brains then don’t see that pain/discomfort as a threat and will pay less attention to it. If we feel unable to cope, that pain is now threatening and our brains will focus in on it (trying to keep us safe at the cost of feeling more uncomfortable).
Unpleasant emotions: Unhelpful thoughts also generally lead to unpleasant, unhelpful emotions. If you are running and think that somebody is trying to make you look bad (Look at that asshole, passing me and trying to make me look like a fool) what emotion will you feel? I would probably feel angry, frustrated, depressed, anxious, etc. Those emotions may lead me to change my plan because, damn it, I have to do something with these emotions. So, I start running faster because my goal is no longer to keep the pace but to make this asshole look like a fool. Now I’m winded, thrown off rhythm and have a new source of frustration – my own fatigue.
Unpleasant emotions also play a critical role in your feelings of pain and fatigue. Difficult emotions like anger, sadness, despair and frustration often increase our subjective experience of the pain we are feeling and lead us to overestimate how tired we are (or, underestimate how much energy we have left). Our thinking can shift our mood and our mood can shift our read of the situation. Now, all of a sudden our pain is worse, we are more tired and this endeavor feels that much more hopeless.
Control vs. Acceptance
Clearly, these thoughts cause problems. What do we do about them? Reflexively, nearly all of us move towards a “control” strategy to deal with these problems – targeting the content, frequency and/or presence of a thought. That’s because control strategies usually work pretty okay sometimes. In fact, control strategies are fantastic for when things are, in fact, controllable. Is that light giving you a headache? Turn it off. You controlled the problem. Is your shirt itchy? Change your shirt. Boom – controlled effectively. Control is fantastic for things “outside the skin.”
The trouble happens when we over use our control strategies. Think about a pizza. Think about the thin, crispy dough, the crust covered in spices, the slightly browned, bubbled cheese and the sweet, red sauce. Now – erase that thought. Get it out of your head. Not just that thought – erase the idea of pizza from your mind.
How did it go? Poorly? Do you still know what pizza is? That’s because control strategies (in this case, suppression) are rarely effective for stuff “inside the skin” or “inside the head.” At their best, there is a suppression paradox where you must be actively thinking about something to attempt to get rid of it. At their worse, suppression strategies tend to burn mass amounts of brain energy, cause significant distraction and often lead to a rebound effect where, upon failure to control, the thought becomes stronger and more interfering.
What is the alternative? If we cannot control, we must find a new strategy. That new strategy is called defusion.
One absurd defusion strategy – Sing the thought
The most important goal of defusion is to experience your thought in a new way. In its natural form, these interfering thoughts arrive fast and hot and bring with them a whole bunch of unpleasant feelings. Our bodies have learned to brace and to wince at the slightest possibility that these bully thoughts are coming around. The more we dread, the easier it is to believe the thought. The more believable the thought, the more interfering it becomes. We want to have the thought without the feeling – to see the thought without everything that comes after.
The most common, and heavily researched, form of defusion is word repetition. Take out a pen and a piece of paper. Now, write the word milk over and over again. Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk Milk.
Wait, is that how milk is spelled?
Your brain has an association – milk means glass of white cow juice. When you have the word, you have the thought and the mental experience of milk. Repeating the word too frequently, and in too quick of a succession, causes a glitch in your brain and the word beings to appear foreign – it has lost its association. Researchers have found that this is effective for lowering the believability of a thought as well as the intensity of the feelings associated with the thought (repetition is also found to be more effective than distraction). In therapy, this would involve boiling your distress into a word (e.g., fat, failure, ugly, hated, trouble, etc.) and repeatedly saying it or writing it down – over and over and over again in quick succession. Two key features of this – (1) always be aware of the rational (why are you doing this, what’s supposed to happen) and (2) check in with changes in your experience (what is changing in your brain and body).
I like this as a strategy on paper but in practice I am not in love. I find that the word repetition, if not done quickly and for long enough, has the potential to stir up things in an unpleasant way. It’s like an antibiotic – if you start it and stop too quickly you are just making a stronger monster. Also, this strategy doesn’t always jive well with people who ruminate or dwell on things. I have a different strategy that I find more effective and far more ridiculous.
Singing your thought.
No, you don’t have to sing these thoughts out loud – only in your head (unless you want to sing out loud, I’m not your father and therefore cannot tell you what to do).
Yes, this sounds stupid and that’s the point.
Remember, the thoughts we are targeting come at you quick and hard. They are in your voice and are easy to believe. We need to hear these thoughts in a new, unique, strange way so we can better evaluate if the thought is helpful or not.
Okay, I’ll bite, how do you do it?
First, catch the thought.
Then, repeat it back to yourself to the tune of a song – ideally a song with an incongruent tone. Do you know why Ella Fitzgerald’s Summertime is such an amazing song? It’s because (among so many other reasons) the lyrics on paper are impossibly upbeat while the music is melancholy. It’s a minor key song with major key lyrics. It’s incongruent and changes the entire meaning of the words in the song. Is the living easy? The context is changes and the feelings shift accordingly.
Think of a story or a phrase you tell yourself. It could be something self-referential (I am a failure) or predictive (I am going to fail) or anything else that gets in the way. Tell it to yourself for 5 seconds.
Felt uncomfortable, right? Now, repeat that back to yourself to a tune you can easily remember. I often encourage people to start with Happy by Pharrell. As a melody, it’s really simple and as a song, it’s really ridiculous (and catchy). Sometimes people go a different route and sing a classic like Twinkle-twinkle or something I’ve never heard of before.
Try it (please).
How did it feel? Different? That’s the hope – not that it will radically create happiness or you will suddenly become the master of your domain but that you will experience the thought differently. If you chuckled to yourself that is 100% amazing. If you can laugh through an unpleasant thought then guess what, Jack – that thought isn’t as unpleasant and it now has less power over you.
Here is a HUGE disclaimer – this strategy isn’t about helping you identify if thoughts are accurate or not. This is a strategy for helping you work through which thoughts are helpful or not.
Recently I was working with a man dying of cancer. The thought of his death (I am going to die) was totally life shattering to him. It gripped him with fear, anxiety and sadness. The thought caused him to act angry with his family, withdraw from the world and avoid doing the things he liked. The thought of dying was causing him to miss out on whatever life he had left.
This man was 100% dying. In fact, he died about 2 months after we started working together. That means the thought was accurate. It also means the thought was unhelpful. It was unhelpful because it (1) wasn’t adding any new information and (2) it was directly blocking him from enjoying what time he had left. Asking him to sing “I’m dying” felt patronizing (mostly because he told me I was being patronizing). Luckily, when you tell people to do things with confidence and talk quickly people often have a fleeting sense of trust in you. That’s where you need to strike.
So, the man sang about dying to Pour Some Sugar on Me – a song he chose in honor of his first love, the “titty bar.” His fear of death was keeping him from enjoying all the tits he could see and, because I am a good therapist, we set that as a target for growth in treatment. I do not choose what people value, I only help them get there.
… and what I do with thoughts in the morning
Now it is 5:15 am. With the dogs fed and back to bed, I head out to run.
You didn’t sleep well last night, you may get sick
That’s actually true. Two nights ago, there was a spectacular storm that shook the house and kept everybody up for nearly the entire night. Last night I couldn’t sleep because I spent the day drinking coffee and reducing my activity level to cope with being tired.
If you run this morning, you won’t do well and feel frustrated.
Accurate, but probably not helpful. I already missed one run this week. I can see the threads of my training plan exposed. Another missed run and the unraveling starts.
About a mile into my run, I was feeling good and my mind was quiet. The air was cool and felt light, almost delicate on my skin. I was listening to a random shuffle of music – a choice I made knowing that if I ruminated for too long on what to listen to I may talk myself out of running altogether.
Just before the two-mile mark, there is a long, gradual uphill climb before a quick descent into my neighborhood. As I turned the corner and looked up the hill, my brain woke back up and did its best impression of self-talk.
I need to stop. This is too hard and I’m too tired. God, my legs feel heavy.
I could feel a pendulum start to swing:
You’re right, I should stop. – Giving up
No, I DON’T need to stop. – Control
This is real hard and I’m feeling drained. – Giving up
No, this is easy and I feel good. – Control
Give up, fight, give up, fight. My legs started to feel thick and without thinking about it I could feel my pace slowing.
Then, like the hymn of an angel or more like the song of Satan, AC/DC’s TNT came on.
Over the infectious, almost obnoxious, Aussy “Oy! Oy! Oy!” my brain dropped in “Stop! Stop! Stop?” “I’m T-N-T” got replaced with “It’s too hard.” I chanted my discouragements and set my struggles to a classic rock melody.
It felt goofy. I laughed to myself.
However, I wasn’t laughing at myself. I was laughing at this unseen, looming entity that suddenly lost some of its power. It was as if I had cancer that was suddenly eradicated, or a virus that medication just squashed. I felt back in control but not trying to be in control.
By the time I realized my success, I had crested the hill and was turning back towards my neighborhood.
The thoughts came back as I breathed a sigh of relief.
You’ve earned it, time to walk
If this is a battle, it is never ending.
But this may not be a battle. Maybe it isn’t supposed to be a battle. I will continue to practice the singing defusion and watch for what new tricks my brain throws at me. I will continue to practice the dance moves in my mind – rolling with my own resistance and swaying with my mind. Nobody is leading. Nobody is following.