You’re probably familiar with the cognitive-behavior technique known as “thought stopping,” used to cope with stressful and anxiety-intensifying thoughts and ideas during panic attacks, as well as with negative self-statements in depression. I’ve never found this technique particularly useful, for me or my clients; even worse, its emphasis on replacing such thoughts with verbal affirmations means you’re trying to address a maladaptive mental habit by prescribing that very habit. In other words, the problem isn’t negative verbal thoughts but verbal thought in general.
This isn’t true for everyone, but many of my clients turned to verbal thought at a very early age in an effort to master trauma, anxiety, major depression and the kind of emotional damage that leads to shame. They’ve spent a lifetime coping with every emotional challenge by thinking about it. That might sound like a positive endeavor — thinking is supposed to be a good thing, right? — but in fact, it’s a kind of defense mechanism where mentally/verbally describing an experience feels like a way of exerting control over it, in an almost a magical way. The person who has developed this kind of defense tends to be very articulate, was often verbally precocious as a child, and over-values language. As one of my clients once told me, “The only good to be found in suffering is if you can describe it well.”
Are you the sort of person who, in the privacy of your thoughts, is constantly talking to yourself about your experience? Does your mental life consist of an endless stream of words in your head? I’m one of these people, and I’ve incorporated some ideas and techniques from eastern meditative practice to help me stem the verbal flow. It puts me more in contact with my body, and makes me aware of feelings and sensations I’m often trying to avoid with all those words.
Finding Your Own Way:
If you’re like me, you’ll find this exercise a major challenge, and my advice is to start small: See if you can take five long in-and-out breaths without thinking and without any words in your head. Focus on your breathing, the rise and fall of your chest as your lungs expand and contract, the sensations in your nostrils as air goes in and out. (HINT: you may end up describing this process to yourself and thinking something like, “I’m really doing well! That’s four breaths, only one more to go.”) Don’t expect yourself to do it perfectly, and don’t criticize yourself when you find yourself reverting to words. Just keep trying.
Return to this exercise throughout the day. Try to make it a regular part of your life. One of the things I repeatedly find is that the words in my head often have NOTHING to do with the sensations in my body, nothing to do with what I’m actually feeling. By focusing on my breath and thinking less, my goal is to get more in contact with my authentic experience, unmediated by all those words in my head that actually take me farther and farther away from myself and my true feelings.