I Want To Stop Thinking About Something. But How?
With so many unknowns and things on the horizon you may not want to think about, it isn’t hard to dread what may lie ahead, and have a hard time NOT thinking about it.
To illustrate this point, there’s a joke that if someone tells you to go into a corner and not think about a panda, what’s the first thing you’ll think about? That’s right, a panda. Because that’s what’s in your head.
Which is how we all feel about COVID these days – it’s the panda. We’d rather not have to think about it, but that’s impossible: it’s always around, affecting everything.
Here’s one recent example:
A grandmother wrote to me. She and her husband were finally able to see their grandkids in the summer because they were no longer in school, and were otherwise not exposed to anyone but their family. The grandparents therefore felt safe being with their grandchildren – hugging, reading books snuggled up close on the couch – enjoying their usual, warm, fun, happy relationship.
But during the full lockdown, they didn’t see each other in person for four months. And Zooming with a four-year-old and a two-year-old doesn’t cut it. This grandmother described her longing for her grandchildren during the lockdown as outright depression – a hole in her heart.
Now, as school may be reopening, this grandmother can’t stop thinking about having to stay apart. She and her husband are elderly, and higher risk. They can’t take the chance of exposure if the grandchildren go back to school as usual, even if it happens.
She thought about asking her daughter to homeschool the kids, so they could continue to see their grandparents. But that would have meant the daughter couldn’t go out to work, which would spell financial disaster for their family – and even if they got financial coverage – it could stall her career. Everything’s intertwined.
This grandmother is like so many of us, wondering how she will cope, and most importantly how she can stop thinking about the things she’s dreading most.
Maybe for you it’s a dreaded project, global politics, or winter is coming. Just like her, we all need reassurance we’ll be able to emotionally cope with whatever lies ahead, but also understand that excessive worrying isn’t solving things. It’s only making things worse.
How to stop thinking about something we don’t want to think about?
Substitution. We need to substitute in what we DO want to think about in place of what we DON’T…
This grandmother will likely have a heart-to-heart with her daughter – if not to request they homeschool, then at least to discuss options for social-distance visits. Or plastic huggers specifically for hugging your loved one’s without risk of viral transmission.
For you, you may need to talk about your feelings, start thinking about solutions, or simply refocus on things you are grateful for.
Feeling heard, and finding solutions can be this grandmother’s thought substitutes, just as they can be yours. Rather than focusing on all the things she can’t control that are likely keeping her stuck in her anxiety, she can use her anxiety to generate solutions and reminders that she can handle – and even thrive – whatever’s to come. This is how she can stop thinking about something that upsets her.
We were all thrown into this emotional turmoil together. None of us have ever faced this exact scenario before, and most everyone seems tired of it all. Yet the tools remain the same: Accept (rather than fight) reality, talk things out (with yourself or someone you love), and come up with creative solutions that work. I know it’s not easy, but it is doable.
My hope for this family – and for you – is the clarity to use worry as a tool to problem-solve for the things you care about most. I trust this family will find effective ways to show and feel their deep love for each other, while feeling physically safe, and avoiding emotional upset – i.e. not getting depressed.
After all, loving and feeling loved have huge influences on health, and keeping their thoughts solidly focused on these goals will help. They need their panda hug, however that may be.