Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coming to terms with magical thinking

I came across an exercise in one of the books I'm reading that posed an unexpected challenge to my current way of thinking. The name of the exercise is "Feared Fantasy Worry". It is in the chapter titled "Evaluating Worries". The author says,

"People often worry because they are trying to avoid having an image or thought that is very upsetting to them... All of [their] cognitive energy is deployed in trying to prevent this terrifying thought from occuring... But what if these patients practiced their feared fantasy worry?"

He includes a transcript of a therapy session in which he asks a patient to identify his worst fear, which in this case is that he will go broke and end up homeless. Next, he tells the patient to imagine himself broke and homeless in as much detail as possible. Then, he tells the patient to repeat over and over again, "I will go broke and end up homeless." At the beginning of the exercise, the patient reports being extremely anxious. After he has repeated the phrase for about 10 minutes, he is no longer anxious at all.

I was very curious about this exercise, because my initial reaction to it was very negative. When I was younger, I used to buy into the idea that repeating positive affirmations could have an effect on actual events, so that the idea of repeating something I didn't want to happen would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do. My views about positive affirmations have altered slightly, as I stated in a recent blog post, in that I think it's important to remind myself frequently of the positive aspects of my character and positive things that have happened in my life to perhaps counterbalance my automatic habit of immediately recalling and dwelling on negative things. But, I am not able to see why it is a good thing to repeat things that are not true with the wish that they will become true. Like, "Everyday, more and more people will read my blog and enjoy it." At best, it seems like a misappropriation of energy, when I could be concentrating my efforts on my writing technique and networking tactics. At worst, it is superstitious. The belief that repeating a particular phrase will create my desired outcome is simultaneously a belief that if I don't repeat the phrase, I will not get my desired outcome. It is a belief that my thoughts can control reality, which is stressful and unhealthy. If you think that if you concentrate your thoughts hard enough you can prevent bad things from happening, you will end up very tired.

So, since I don't believe I can control reality with my thoughts, I was surprised at my resistance to the idea of repeating something I don't want to happen. There was (and maybe still is) a part of me that thinks something is more likely to occur if I say it out loud. But, since I had already benefited from several other exercises in the book, I felt like it might be a good idea to try this one and challenge my brain's bias. I reasoned with myself, if I were to repeat, "I am a pigeon." over and over again, would I be more likely to become a pigeon? Would I suddenly turn into a pigeon? (No. I don't think so.) With that reasoning, I went ahead and tried the exercise. I imagined in my mind something that I very much do not want to happen and then repeated a statement that it was going to happen over and over again. What happened next is something I could never have predicted. I felt a sort of euphoria come over me. I actually started to laugh. I felt an immense feeling of relief. Then, I tried the exercise again with another fear. This time I didn't feel euphoria. I didn't start laughing. But, I started to relax and felt like maybe I wouldn't die if my fear did become true.

I have long thought that resisting pain hurts more than accepting it, so in that sense, the exercise makes total sense to me. By trying on my worst fear to see just how bad it might be, I discovered that the fear itself wasn't as bad as my fear of the fear.


Jesse Andrews said...

A similar exercise to boggarts in Harry Potter :)

After saying those things you are afraid of aloud, then you breath and realize you are still there and you could deal. It might be a few steps backwards but at least you have the knowledge you gained in the first place.

wow, thanks for sharing!

Jesse Andrews said...

Sorry for the double post, but while blogbiking I just read an article about lifting weights called the iron.

Well, it is actually an article about self-worth and facing fears. While parts of it comes off like "no pain, no gain", Similar to saying something hard to let your mind experience it, by pushing yourself to do something physically hard, it lets you know how bad things can really be, and that it isn't that bad after all.

"When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can't be as bad as that workout."

it makes me think of the Dan Gilbert's ted talk, where after 3 months people aren't affected as much. perhaps that is our lesson. we stress for years on things that won't affect us in 3 months if they happened

Pam said...

Thanks, Jesse, for your thoughts and the links! :-)

Dana M said...

My Dad cured me (mostly) of frequent nightmares when I was about 10 or 12 by suggesting I play through my mind everything I usually had nightmares about before falling asleep. I still do this sometimes. Pretty nervy thing for a parent to suggest (Mom: "pretend there are ducks on your pillowcase"), but it seemed to work. So, we don't control events, but as you point out, we can control what we fear, or at least fear blindly and hysterically. Do you think this is like religion?

Pam said...

That is really interesting, Dana, and I would also say pretty gutsy of your Dad to encourage, but very cool that it worked. I guess if I was going to include religion in this discussion it would be related to how someone might pray to God to save them from a fear they might be better just facing. Like, "Dear God, please don't let me fail my math test" instead of studying for the math test. What were you thinking of related to religion?

Pam said...

To be totally honest with you all, the second time I tried this exercise yesterday, it kicked me in the ass. I thought I was feeling better about it, but then as the day went on, my mind kept repeating the sentence of my fear over and over again like an automatic negative thought. I realized that it was pretty deep seated and I needed to journal about and then talk about it. I suppose the good thing is that I identified the fear and then make some progress in resolving my feelings about it, and maybe the exercise helped in igniting the process. But, the exercise alone wasn't helpful in that particular case.

Pam said...

last comment, make=made

Dana said...

I guess I wasn't thinking so much of praying for bad things not to happen as religion providing a framework for bearing what appears unendurable, or a perspective to put personal fear in a cosmic context. So, not praying to not fail a math test, but praying that, if despite studying hard I do fail and my parents kick me out, I still retain worth as part of some creation....I don't know - I'm not religious, that's why I wondered if this is what religion is/does for some. I like the notion of prayer as organized, focused constructive/deconstructive worrying. sorry if you meant to wrap this up, and thanks for making me think!