Off the Meds: Why It’s Impossible to “Just Not Think About It”

My previous post about anxiety received quite a bit of feedback, so I thought I might do a series on what it’s like living with the disorder. For someone who’s never experienced a true anxiety disorder, it can be very hard to understand what people go through.

When I used to experience anxiety on a daily basis, one of the most frequent–and most unhelpful–things people would say to me was “Just don’t think about it.” This statement was usually accompanied by a narrow-eyed what’s wrong with you look and a small head shake. As if I was bringing the anxiety on myself because I refused to simply not think about whatever it was I was thinking about.

Just don’t think about it.

As if saying those words to me would suddenly make me realize I had control over my thoughts. Gee, why didn’t I think of that? If I could just not think about whatever I was stressing over, don’t you think maybe…just maybe…I wouldn’t think about it?

For someone who isn’t prone to anxiety, it sounds completely logical. If the thoughts are stressing you out, stop thinking them, and you won’t be stressed anymore. The problem with that theory is that anxiety isn’t logical. And the more I try to NOT think about something, the more insistent and invasive the thoughts become.

For example, what if I told you not to think about a giant gray elephant wearing a pink tutu. Don’t think about the elephant. Don’t picture the fluffy pink tutu in your mind. Chances are, when you read those last three sentences, you saw an elephant. If you’re more left-brained, maybe you saw the word ELEPHANT. And the more I talk about elephants and tutus, the more likely you are to see an elephant in your mind.

That’s kind of how anxiety works.

Do you like chocolate? If so, this next paragraph is for you. If you don’t, then just don’t think about something else you like: a big, juicy steak; a frosty, bubbly beer; the tangy salty goodness of potato chips…

anxiety-cakeIf you do like chocolate, don’t think about chocolate cake. Don’t imagine the sweet, rich, dark scent as you bring that first bite up to your lips. Don’t think about the way your mouth waters in anticipation. Don’t imagine the way the spongey texture falls apart on your tongue or the way the thick,fudgy frosting seems to melt in your mouth. Don’t think about the sweet, chocolatey goodness as it slides down your throat or the clinking sound the fork makes as it slices through another bite and scrapes across the plate. Don’t think about chocolate cake.

You thought about chocolate cake, didn’t you? If you didn’t imagine, even for a second, all that rich, sweet chocolate, you can stop reading because this post isn’t going to help you understand. But if you did imagine the chocolate cake and the elephant, then maybe you can empathize with an anxious mind.

Having anxiety is like having a radio announcer inside your head, constantly whispering–often times shouting–those thoughts that you are supposed to be ignoring. And the harder you try to not think about it, the more those thoughts are going to occupy your mind.

So next time someone you love is struggling with the obsessive thoughts of an anxious mind, stop and think before you tell them to just stop thinking about it. Because, chances are, if they could stop thinking about it, they would.




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