I Want To Stop Thinking About Something. But How?
Knowing how to stop thinking about something might not be as easy as we would like it to be, especially with so many unknowns and things on the horizon you may not want to think about. 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 are able to see their grandkids now because they are not in school, and are otherwise not exposed to anyone but their family. The grandparents therefore feel 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, a few weeks before school might reopen, this grandmother is worried they’ll have to revert to staying apart. She and her husband are elderly, and therefore in the more high-risk category, and they don’t want that risk. She advocated requesting her daughter homeschool the kids, so they could continue to see their grandparents. But that means the daughter can’t go out to work, which spells financial disaster for their family – and even if they got financial coverage – it could stall her career. Everything’s intertwined.
The grandmother keeps thinking about asking her daughter to homeschool. About whether it’s her right to ask. And she understands that it would be really hard for the parents to continue to have their kids home all the time – financially and emotionally. But she’s torn. She wonders how she can stop thinking about this something she wants to stop thinking about. She wants reassurance she’ll be able to emotionally cope without seeing her grandchildren if it comes to that.
How to stop thinking about something we don’t want to think about?
Substitution. We need to substitute for what we DO want to think about.
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.
Feeling heard, and finding solutions can be this grandmother’s thought substitutes. 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 – for 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. I myself, as a psychologist, have never helped people through this type of situation. Yet the tools remain the same: Accept the reality, talk things out, and come up with creative solutions that can be the best for everyone. I know it’s not easy, yet it’s doable.
My hope for this family is that they find effective ways to continue 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 has a huge influence on health, and keeping their thoughts solidly focused on what they can control will help. They need their panda hug, however that may be.
*Identifying details changed to preserve anonymity.