Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What am I thinking now? Becoming more aware of my thoughts

It’s becoming increasingly important to me to be aware of my thought patterns because I’m recognizing the ways they can affect how I feel.
I may not be able to stop or control my thoughts, but I can add new ones and guide myself to dwell on the helpful ones, like I did in the “prove it” exercise I wrote about in my last post.
I still have a lot of confusion about the importance of/lack of importance of thoughts. But I’ve been doing some interesting reading that I thought I would share with you.

According to Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D., in his Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with Uncertainty, one common OCD cognitive distortion is the over-importance of thoughts, also known as thought-action fusion (TAF): “If this disorder is part of your OCD, then you tend to consider thoughts equivalent to action. You spend your time trying to figure out why you are having such an awful thought and whether or not it means something terrible about you” (p. 99).
If you have TAF, you may have been “thinking that the goal of treatment is either to stop the thoughts or to know that they mean nothing of importance” (p. 99). But that’s not the goal of treatment. Rather, that “goal of treatment is to learn to accept the possibility of all these meanings—even the possibilities of the worst ones” (p. 99).

Another common OCD cognitive distortion is excessive concern about the importance of controlling your thoughts. The focus is “on the belief that you should be able to control your thoughts or avoid having certain thoughts” (p. 99). This belief doesn’t have any support, though: “Such thought control is not possible for anyone to achieve. Any and all thoughts that come into your mind, no matter how evil, twisted, or perverse they may seem, are normal” (p. 99).
Therefore, “the goal of treatment is not to stop these thoughts, but to learn to allow them to be on your mind without being upset about them” (p. 100).

For me, that’s where mindfulness comes in. In his book Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness in the following way: “Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (p. 1).
Awareness of your thoughts is one aspect of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn says, “We see that thoughts, when brought into and held in awareness in this way, readily lose their power to dominate and dictate our responses to life, no matter what their content and emotional charge. They then become workable rather than imprisoning” (p. 38).

When I become aware of my thoughts, whether it’s through mindfulness meditation, a writing exercise, a discussion with a therapist or friend, or some other way, I needn’t be alarmed or afraid. They are just thoughts.
How I respond to them is still my choice.

What are some things you’ve discovered when you started paying attention to your thoughts?

16 comments:

  1. Oh, Tina, that took me FOREVER in therapy to finally get the point that the goal of therapy is NOT to get rid of the thoughts, but it is to learn to tolerate them and live in spite of them. I was also kind of frustrated when I learned that was the goal of therapy. But the interesting thing, is that when you finally do get that point, and accept that the thoughts will be there, well, guess what? Eventually they start to go away! I think it's because I no longer fight them. They come, I accept them as being just OCD, and because I don't get emotional about the thoughts anymore (and I think getting emotional about thoughts makes them stronger) they just don't have their power over me as much. I would say I have about half as many obsessive thoughts as I used to. And the thoughts I do get now, I am usually able to tolerate them pretty well. I've gotten so much of my life back since CBT/ERP.

    The other point that you made that was excellent was that EVERYONE gets the same thoughts. They've done scientific studies on this that proves it. (Well they found like 80%-88% of the general population - close enough to everyone!) Anyway, the difference is that the general population doesn't give these thoughts any importance, but for those of us with OCD, well the thoughts freak us out.

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    1. Sunny, I agree-at first, I thought that the logical things to do would be to get rid of the thoughts. But it doesn't work that way. And I agree with the idea that we give the thoughts power when we steep them in emotion. Thank you for your comment!

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  2. So true what Sunny is saying as it happened to me too; the moment I stopped worrying about the thoughts they went away!
    I also believed that people could somehow read from my facial expression what I was thinking, which made it so much harder to have these thoughts, as they were often evil and bad. So my psychologist made me think bad things in front of other people on purpose, which in the beginning was terribly difficult to do, but it helped. Now I know nobody can read my mind, and it doesn't matter what I think. So pleased all of this is no longer an issue!

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    1. Klaaske, I'm glad you got better with the worry over people being able to read your facial expressions. That would bother me, too! I think it's amazing that when we stop worrying about our thoughts, they actually get better. I guess it shows that worry accomplishes nothing.

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  3. If only they would just go away! Too bad it doesn't work that way. But tolerance is just as good, when you get really skilled in it!

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    1. Lisa, I'm working on that skill every day! :-)

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  4. Very interesting post and comments. As someone who does not have OCD, I can vouch for the fact that I have the same types of thoughts that those with OCD have, but I never remember attaching any importance to any of them. Somehow I just knew that they were thoughts, nothing more, and that they meant nothing. Now if someone could just figure out WHY some people attach such importance to thoughts and others can just let them go without, well, a second thought!

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    1. Janet, if that gets figured out, that would be wonderful! :-)

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  5. Tina, just last week my therapist discussed thought-action fusion with me because I've got it. I had never heard that term before last week and now here you are blogging about it!

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    1. Elizabeth, I practice TAF, too--I had heard of the concept but not the name.

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  6. Paying attention to our thoughts is not easy, and sometimes take a lot of courage. Each time I do though, I learn a bit more about myself. And more often than not, it is beneficial. Only when we really listen to ourselves can we change.

    Thanks for this :0)

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  7. Great post Tina. I have that book by Jon Kabat Zinn, think I will need to have another read at it.

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    1. Thank you! I love what he's saying in the book--still reading it.

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  8. This brings back so many memories. Up until just a few years ago, I was inundated by intrusive thoughts. Doom scenarios were constant and all encompassing. I called it: If it could happen, it will happen. Emotionally I couldn't see any distinction between my internal thoughts and my outward reality. I placed too much importance on my thoughts but trying to ignore them or fight them just made them more powerful. I love the strategy of embracing them. Being mindful of what they are and just going with it is so freeing.

    Your posts are always so interesting, Tina.

    Now I'm trying to teach my young ones this. I wonder if it's something you can't really master until you're older.

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    1. Grace, that's an interesting question, whether or not we can really master embracing our thoughts until we are older. I had never heard of the concept of being mindful and accepting our thoughts when I was younger. I think it would have done me a lot of good and gotten rid of a lot of guilt if I had.

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