Tune out of your bad thoughts

Unpleasant thoughts can fill your head like a radio station that only broadcasts bad news. Let those thoughts disappear into the background like you’ve turned the radio down low.

Tune out of your bad thoughts.

photo credit: Orangeya via photopin cc

‘He … switches on the radio to shut off their conversation. The four-thirty news: earthquake in Hawaii, kidnapping of two American businessmen in El Salvador, Soviet tanks patrolling the streets of Kabul in the wake of last Sunday’s mysterious change of leadership in Afghanistan. In Mexico, a natural-gas pact with the United States signals possible long-term relief for the energy crisis. In California, ten days of brush fire have destroyed more acres than any such fire since 1970. In Philadelphia, publishing magnate Walter Annenberg has donated fifty thousand dollars to the Catholic Archdiocese to help defray costs of the controversial platform from which Pope John Paul the Second is scheduled to celebrate Mass on October the third.’

John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.

Our mind is a bit like a radio, constantly playing in the background. Most of the time it’s the Radio Doom and Gloom Show, broadcasting negative stories twenty-four hours every day. It reminds us of bad things from the past (You really screwed up there!), it warns us of bad things to come in the future (You’re going to fail again!), and it gives us regular updates on everything that’s wrong with us (Your life’s a mess!). Once in a while it broadcasts something useful or cheerful, but not too often. So if we’re constantly tuned in to this radio, listening to it intently and, worse, believing everything we hear, then we have a sure-fire recipe for stress and misery.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to switch off this radio. Even Zen masters are unable to achieve such a feat. Sometimes the radio will stop of its own accord for a few seconds (or even—very rarely—for a few minutes). But we just don’t have the power to make it stop (unless we short-circuit it with drugs, alcohol, or brain surgery). In fact, generally speaking, the more we try to make this radio stop, the louder it plays.

But there is an alternative approach. Have you ever had a radio playing in the background, but you were so intent on what you were doing that you didn’t really listen to it? You could hear the radio playing, but you weren’t paying attention to it. In practicing defusion skills, we are ultimately aiming to do precisely that with our thoughts. Once we know that thoughts are just bits of language, we can treat them like background noise—we can let them come and go without focusing on them and without being bothered by them.’

Russ Harris. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Introductory Workshop Handout.

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