A very common action people struggling with anxiety face, is trying to NOT think about bad things happening. This is also very common in sports. I remember many rounds of golf where I would be playing well and then standing over a shot thinking, “Don’t hit it into the tree, don’t hit it into the tree.” No prizes for guessing where the ball ended up.
What’s The “Pink Elephant Problem?”
Stop reading this and try to play a game. In the next 30 seconds I want you to try and NOT think about a pink elephant…
Almost everyone who does this finds that the thing they end up thinking of, often several times, is the pink elephant.
This teaches us that trying to suppress thoughts makes them worse. If you’re anxious, your brain is trying to figure out everything that can go wrong, in order to problem solve it and allow you to take action. This sometimes means thinking about the worst case outcomes. When that happens, and it spikes a response, that’s when people try to NOT think about it…which makes it worse.
It’s Like Scratching An Bug Bite: It Makes It Worse
Instead of trying to not think about something anxiety provoking, I’ll offer two potential solutions for you.
Solution One: Pick Something To Focus On, Allow The Pink Elephant
If you are able, by focusing on something specific, you can change your focus to something more positive. For example, if I cue you to remember not thinking about a pink elephant, are you then able to focus on imagining building a treehouse (for yourself of course!) in great detail? If your thoughts wander to the pink elephant, simply notice those thoughts and bring yourself back to the treehouse. You’re basically observing thoughts like clouds in the sky, focusing on one thing and gently allowing your mind to wander. Notice that with this strategy you’re not trying to not think about a pink elephant at any point, you’re just trying to focus on something you can control. When you’re afraid of the thoughts, it means you’re engaging with them. When you instead just notice their existence, they become less scary.
Solution Two: Think About the Pink Elephant, Imagine Coping Well
Start by simply observing your thoughts without judging them as good or bad. However, now try deliberately thinking about the thing you fear (this is imaginal exposure). In my case, the golf ball flying into the tree! Think about the worst case scenario, but don’t problem-solve how to avoid it. Instead, allow yourself to think about that thing you don’t want to have happen, and how you will cope with the situation if it does happen. This works on your ability to not be afraid of your thoughts.
These two strategies can really help you disengage from the pink elephant problem. They teach you to not fear anxiety-related thoughts. When you fear those thoughts and you try to stop thinking about them, it only makes them worse. Instead, try either of these two strategies and see what you think. Let me know if you have other suggestions!
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