Accepting And Rolling With Maladaptive Thoughts

There are some general ways people can try to handle their negative, maladaptive thoughts. Another article covers challenging them. This article will go over the approach of accepting and rolling with them. In some ways it seems like the philosophies here are incompatible with the ones in the other article, but the two can be mixed just fine.

The ideas here come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which itself has roots in Mindfulness Meditation and concepts from Eastern religions and practices. I'll try to summarize the ideas in a way that's brief enough and makes sense to me. However, if what I've written seems interesting to you I strongly encourage you to do some further reading on the topic. It's an area where there are several books available that all cover roughly the same material. One I've read that I liked is The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by John Forsyth and Georg Eifert.

Concepts from this approach are also a big part of this article:

Overall Attitudes For Handling Anxiety

As you can see, the article above is focused on anxiety, since that's what a lot of ACT-based treatment focuses on, but you can apply the same ideas to other issues.

Maladaptive thoughts can't be totally eliminated

A central tenet of the 'accepting and rolling with negative thoughts' approach is that our maladaptive thinking can never be completely controlled. Consciously trying to affect your thoughts, through methods like challenging maladaptive cognitions, or relaxation exercises, can only go so far. It's impossible to have total control over how you think. Sometimes we're going to feel insecure or negative or depressed or anxious. That's just how life is. It's impossible to feel happy 100% of the time.

Someone is just going to feel bad about themselves if they try to 'think positively' all the time. It can't be done. Even more than that, trying not to think of something sometimes has the effect of making you focus on it even more (e.g., if I told you to try not to imagine a purple cat). ACT argues that some people struggle with negative moods, particularly anxiety, so much because they put a lot of energy into curbing them, which paradoxically increases their power.

Rolling with maladaptive thoughts

So how do you handle your negative thoughts and feelings as they come up? I can't describe all the techniques, but I'll cover the basic ideas. One important concept is realizing that while negative self-talk, depression, and anxiety may not feel great, they're mostly harmless and you can still act while feeling them. The other big concept is that people can learn to experience unpleasant thoughts and sensations in a more detached way. We don't have to get sucked into and caught up in every thought that passes through our minds. Our negative thoughts are just another part of us as well. They're not necessarily 'bad' or evil.

Our minds generate all kinds of thoughts, and not all of them are benevolent or created by the 'real you'. Many of the things that pass through our heads are just random noise and chatter, and we don't have to take it all seriously. These thoughts we can just observe and choose not to act on or take at face value. There's no need to debate or break down these maladaptive thoughts like in the 'challenging' approach. That would give them too much credit and power. Instead you should briefly note them in a distant, non-judgmental way and then let them pass on.

Here's an example: Have the thought "I am an orange." When you did this you probably thought, "'I'm an orange'... uh... okay?..." It's a thought you had, but you didn't automatically go, "Oh no! I've turned into an orange! How did this happen?!? How can I change back?!! What if someone comes along and eats me?!?" However, when we have thoughts like, "No one likes me" or, "I won't be able to handle the job interview tomorrow", we're much more likely to get sucked in, treat them as true, or see them as a type of thinking that's a problem and must be purged. Someone will never stop having those kinds of thoughts, but with practice they can get better at not reacting to them. It can be visualized as standing by a river and briefly noting leaves as they drift by.

If a negative mood comes on, such as nervousness or sadness, again the idea is not to fight it and end up inadvertently fanning the flames. This approach believes that our moods come and go, and if we don't overreact to them and let them run their course, we'll feel differently before long. For example, if someone starts to feel anxious, and they just 'be' with their anxiety and let it do its thing, it will usually pass in no more than fifteen minutes. If they get freaked out by the fact that they're getting nervous symptoms they'll probably make it worse.

Mindfulness exercises

Like I said, a few hundred words of summary can't begin to do this area justice. If this stuff interests you I encourage you to read up on it further. There are many exercises people can practice to develop their ability to observe things in a detached way. It is a skill that has to be built up. Many of these exercises involve meditating or observing something or attending to your thoughts. However the idea isn't to achieve a state of relaxation, or come to some Zen insight about the universe, that sweeps all your problems away. It's to feel any number of things, or think any number of thoughts, but not judge or label or react to any of it.

Someone might try to mindfully meditate by sitting in a chair for ten minutes and closing their eyes. Once they begin, there's no 'right' way to feel. All they should aim to do is focus on their breathing, and if their thoughts wander, to let them go and come back to paying attention to their breath. During those ten minutes they may have all kinds of thoughts and sensations, some of which may be: "This isn't working", "I'm bored", "I feel even more nervous than usual", "My leg is uncomfortable", "I know I'm supposed to take my thoughts back to my breathing, but it's not that easy."

Again, the goal isn't to think a particular way. If your mind completely wanders for the entire time and you don't focus on your breath once, that's fine too. Inherent in this style of meditation is the idea that your mind can do whatever it does, and it's all acceptable, and you can observe it and not react to it. Again, it's definitely something you have to put in the time to practice.

Taking elements from both approaches

The general approaches of 'challenging' and 'accepting' can both be useful in handling negative thoughts. I find the 'thought challenging and replacing' strategy is good for dealing with blatantly distorted or unrealistic ways of thinking. If someone has a thought like, "If I don't get along with everyone on this new team I joined, I'll never get the hang of socializing and I'll be alone forever!", it's pretty easy to identify how exaggerated it is and shoot it down.

I don't think the challenging approach can totally clean up someone's thinking however, and the 'accepting' philosophy can be useful for dealing with what's left over. You can still have negative thoughts, but you let them float past you without reacting to them, and not let them prevent you from doing what you were going to do anyway.