Thank Your Brain Because It’s Only Trying to Help…and Other Creative Ways to Respond to Your Mind’s Worries

Have you ever had a worry question or concern get stuck in your head? Yep, me too. When this happens, it’s usually because we’re worried about something. Sometimes, these repetitive questions can feel annoying and obnoxious. Sometimes, they can feel much worse than that, triggering all kinds of catastrophic thoughts and increasing stress levels in your body. Ack! That’s no fun. So how can we turn down the volume on these pesky, repetitive worry questions? We can accept them. Yes, you read that correctly. It seems a bit counterintuitive, so let me explain. There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon that can happen when we try to push a troublesome thought or emotion away: we might make it worse. In my field, we have a handy phrase that describes this phenomenon: “What we resist persists.” Try pushing one of your hands against the other. Go ahead, I’ll wait here patiently. The longer you push, the more tension you notice in your arms. When we try to push away thoughts or emotions, it can create a similar sense of emotional or bodily tension. We can ease that tension if we let go of the push, allowing an internal softening. Then, we can reinvest the energy that we’ve been using to push away into a different way of responding to our emotional concerns.

Instead of pushing away worry questions, let’s explore some creative ways to practice accepting them. One approach is to allow the thoughts and even to thank your brain for sending them. After all, your brain is only trying to help keep you alert to potential dangers. For example, take the worry questions that start with, “What if…” and end with something going wrong, usually very, very wrong. Imagine letting go of the struggle with thosequestions and instead saying, “Thank you, Brain, for keeping me alert to potential risks.” It’s a totally different way to respond! Plus, it shifts the negative energy into something more positive. An astute student in one of my mindfulness courses likened this approach to soothing a barking dog. If your dog is barking like crazy looking out the window at a very dangerous squirrel or the always-alarming mail carrier, you can often calm the dog down by saying, “Good boy! Thank you for alerting me to that important situation. Thank you, Rover!” You can even give yourself a visual with this technique, imagining that you’re petting your brain as you thank it. I know, I know, that’s weird…but that’s part of why it works! When we realize we can be respectfully playful with our own troubling thoughts, like being able to visualize petting our own brain, we defuse from the emotional power these thoughts try to exert over us and give ourselves the chance to respond differently.

Another way to respond to our minds troubling questions is to answer it honestly and concisely, even it it means giving an answer that is not terribly gratifying. I like to refer to this approach as giving your brain “remarkably unsatisfying answers” or RUAs. This strategy works well with pesky and persistent “what if” questions about circumstances that may be out of our control. Let’s consider an example: Jana is working on her social anxiety and is trying to decide if she will go to attend a friend’s small birthday party at a nice restaurant. Her mind is filled with “what if” questions: “What if I make a fool of myself by saying something stupid? What if I totally clam up and can’t think of anything to say at all? What if I have a panic attack in the middle of dinner?” When Jana notices her “what if” worries churning like this, she can start by accepting them and respectfully thanking her brain: “Thank you, Brain, for keeping me alert to all the things that could go wrong at the party. I appreciate your help.” Then, Jana can apply an RUA: “I will deal with those situations if they come to pass.” This is not a terribly satisfying answer but it is an honest and factual answer. Sometimes that is exactly what our mind needs—an answer. You can see that this RUA does not offer trite reassurances nor does it minimize the emotions involved. An RUA can be a very effective way to tell your brain that you have heard what it has to say and will respond accordingly. By offering an affirmative response to your worry questions, it helps you defuse from the power of the worry questions and respond differently. You are freeing the energy that has been previously sucked up by your emotions becoming fused with the worry questions.

Both of these approaches—thanking your brain and RUAs—are examples of a skill set called cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion is the ability to constructively observe and work with your own thoughts. When we learn to respectfully play with our own worry thoughts, including those pesky “what if” questions, we don’t have to fuse with these thoughts as if they are rock-solid truths. This gives us the chance to respond differently. Thanking your brain and using RUAs both take practice so I encourage you to play around with these techniques to see if they can be helpful to you.

Wishing you well,

Dr. Jen