Unwanted thoughts/feelings - how to cope...

At some point or another, haven't we all thought if only I could get rid of this condition then I would finally be able to lead a meaningful life! Or, if only, I could stop feeling this way then I would be able to feel happy. Unfortunately, life can be tricky and not as straight forwarded as we would like, so sometimes experiencing those unwanted emotions/feelings/thoughts can be inevitable. However, perhaps there is a way to feel happy and lead a meaningful life, whilst still experiencing those unwanted emotions/feelings/thoughts. Let's discuss.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Russ Harris, world-renowned trainer of ACT, the goal of ACT is to commit to living a rich and meaningful life, whilst also accepting that sometimes those unwanted thoughts/feelings/emotions are inevitable. Put simply, it is okay to feel and acknowledge that you are experiencing things you may not want to. However, rather than fighting those thoughts/feelings/emotions and the pain that comes with it, you can make peace with what you are experiencing by using acceptance strategies such as ACT metaphors.

ACT metaphors can be a fun, engaging, and practical tool to use when you are experiencing unwanted thoughts/feelings/emotions. Of course, it is not a quick fix solution (it takes practice and patience) and it may not help everyone. However, there are many people who do find ACT metaphors a useful tool to feel better. Let's discuss a few.

The Struggle Switch

Let's begin with the Struggle Switch. The struggle switch metaphor is commonly used to help people who experience anxiety and often used to describe how our other thoughts/feelings/emotions can amplify anxious feelings. To demonstrate, imagine that you are feeling anxious and as you do, a switch is turned ON in your brain that makes you want to struggle against your anxiety in order to get rid of it. This struggle may include having thoughts such as "I don't like feeling like this!", "How did I get rid of this now!", "Why am I feeling like this when everything is going well!".

Now, as well as having anxiety, we are also now experiencing added anxiety about having anxiety. We might even begin to get angry or frustrated about our anxiety, or perhaps even sadness and guilt. So, essentially, the anxiety gets worse the more we struggle against it and the struggling can lead to further unwanted thoughts/feelings/emotions. However, now imagine what would happen if when you started feeling anxious instead of struggling against that anxiety, you switch that struggle switch to OFF. By turning that struggle switch OFF it means that we have decided we are not going to invest any more of our time, resources, and energy in struggling against feeling anxious because it makes it worse.

So although we still might still be feeling anxious, we are going to invest our time and energy instead into doing the things we enjoy and give our life meaning such as spending time with friends and family, listening to music, or being around nature. The anxiety might get more intense or less intense as time passes, however it is now not being impacted or leading to further unwanted thoughts/feelings/emotions. In summary, experiencing life without experiencing anxiety may not always be possible. However, when our anxiety does play up and we turn that struggle switch to OFF, it can be much easier to cope with that anxiety rather than when that struggle switch is ON.

Sushi Train

The Sushi Train is often a fun and visually appealing ACT metaphor to use for people who struggle with anxiety or depressive symptoms which can cause intrusive thoughts.To begin with, imagine you have arrived to a Sushi Train restaurant. The waiter comes and greets you, leads you and sits you down at a table. Beside you, is a conveyor belt that goes round and round, carrying an array of bright and colourful plates. However, upon a much closer look, you notice that this is no ordinary Sushi Train restaurant because instead of sushi on the plates, the plates carry different 'thoughts'. So, as you watch the plates go by you can see they carry negative thoughts such as "I am not good enough", "I will never stop feeling sad", and "there is no one to help me". As you sit in the chair, you watch the plates go by and you are well-aware that they exist. However, rather than picking up the plate you simply watch the plate carrying the negative thought pass you by. This metaphor is often useful to practice to remember that although you can acknowledge that a certain thought exists, it doesn't mean that you have to accept that thought as being true. Rather, sit tight and let that thought come and then pass on.

The Unwanted Party Guest

The third and final metaphor that this article will discuss is often found helpful for people who live with persistent negative thoughts/feelings/emotions. To begin, imagine that you have just moved into a new house and you decide to invite all your friends for a house warming BBQ. All your friends have arrived and you are excited to be spending time with them.

Suddenly, you hear an aggressive knock on the door and when you open the door you see your next door neighbour who is loud, unruly, negative, and annoying. Your neighbour demands to be let in and although you don't want him to come, you don't know how to say no. However, once your guest is there, he is disruptive and rude towards your guests and you feel annoyed and agitated. Finally, you pluck up the courage and kick out your neighbour! However, upon re-entering the party, you see that this unwanted guest has climbed the fence and has re-entered the party. You kick them out again but when you re-enter the backyard you see they have gate-crashed the party again! You kick them out again and again, however every single time the annoying and negative neighbour finds a way back in. By now, you are so frustrated and annoyed with your neighbour that all your attention and time is focused on dealing with your neighbour. So much so, that you are not able to have a good time and enjoy your time with your friends.

Although you are incredibly frustrated and annoyed, you have come to the realisation that the guest is not going to leave so you decide to let them stay. As the party goes on, the guest stays and although they remain negative, you realise it's not worth focusing your time and energy on them because it makes it worse. Rather you have acknowledged that they are there, however that is not going to stop you from having fun and enjoying the company of your friends. In summary, this metaphor can be used to help people cope with intrusive and unwanted thoughts or feelings. So you whilst you can accept that those thoughts and feelings are there, you are still able to put your attention elsewhere and be able to enjoy the positive things around you.

By now, hopefully you would have been able to detect the common trends in each of these metaphors. Each of these ACT metaphors aims to teach people how to be able to experience, accept and cope with the unwanted thoughts/feelings/emotions that are often inevitable. However, through acceptance, it is possible to experience something unwanted, and yet still be able to focus on having a meaningful and happy life. If you would like to be learn more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy please visit https://www.actmindfully.com.au/.






Image from Unsplash by processingly@processingly

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