Skip to main content

A 15 minute exercise for anxiety or depression.

As your hands fumble across countless sites of self-help and coping, this post might have come up.

I know the feeling. The feeling of your head being a electric sarcophagus. Of so many negative thoughts and feelings ripping through you like a tornado. You can't concentrate. You can't eat. Living is surviving.

First, I want you to know that it gets better. It always gets better. Nothing can stay the same. Next I want you to know that everything takes time, but this method will change your relationship with your feelings instantly.

The problem with anxiety and depression is often the pink elephant syndrome.

Right now I want you to NOT think about pink elephants. Don't do it. If you do something terrible will happen.

What are you thinking about?

Pink Elephants? Really? Stop doing it. Just stop. Jesus get a hold of yourself. It's an easy task, just stop thinking about pink elephants!

Not very effective huh?

But this is the tactic us people with anxiety and depression do all of the time, and expect different results. We shuck it aside. We distract ourselves. We try not think about it. Then we get mad at ourselves for not being able to not think about it.

Worse, our families with normal functioning brains tell us to just "not worry about it" to "get ahold of ourselves", "stop thinking about it". Literally the worst advice ever. Pretend you never heard it. There are numerous studies that show that thought repression actually strengthens the intensity and frequency of the thought.

Now, I want to say that there are times where distraction is a really good thing. But it's not a cure. And it will never be a cure.

The only cure is facing your feelings. Facing your thoughts. And trust me. I know that sounds terrifying. But there is a reason that the best horror films never let you see the monster. And your brain is using the same trick for you. Things in the shadows are scarier than things you confront.

If you feel trapped and bombarded by your thoughts, I want you to try this exercise. Now, I want to pre-warn you that personally, sometimes after this exercise I feel pretty meloncholy, depressed even, but I don't feel trapped. So, make sure you have someone supportive you can go to after doing this.

I want you to pick a thought that gives you a pang of negative feeling, but not one that is your core negative thought. Something that feels shitty, but not the most overwhelming thing you can think of. I want you to find one specific phrase and stick with just that one for this exercise.

If you need help finding that thought, listenn closely to what's going on in your head. It will be fast, but you might catch a "what if" thought. You can also ask yourself, what am I scared of?

When you say your thought to yourself, you should notice a pang of negative emotion rip through your body for a second.

I'm going to use the thought "What if it gets worse" as an example, but use whatever thought comes to you. Some pointers on this thought:

1. Thoughts that start with "What if" are usually good for this exercise
2. I want you to keep the exact thought the entire time. You are going to have other thoughts ripping through your brain and body too, that is to be expected, and that is okay, but you are just focusing your attention on this thought for this exercise. Don't try to tackle them all right now. Just this one.

Now, say your thought to yourself. Did you feel the pang? Good.

Say it again. Feel the pang? Good.

Say it and make that pang worse. I know it sounds scary but do it.

I want you to notice a couple of things about the feeling.
1. where do you feel the pang in your body (in your chest, eyes, stomach?)
2. how long does it last?
3. Is it a heavy or a light feeling?

Say it again. Did you feel the pang?

I want you to set a timer now. Set it for 15 minutes. I want you to say this thought over and over to yourself. I want you to try to make yourself get the biggest pang of emotion you can every time you think that thought. Try to trump the last pang you got and make it worse than last time. I know this may sound terrifying, but please hang with me and try this. For science.

Come back here when the timer goes off. DO NOT KEEP READING. Helping yourself is about your habits and practices, not how good of a reader you are. You will never get better by skimming this and not taking any of it to heart. So set your timer and come back.

Hello. You're still alive. That's pretty neat.

I'm going to assume a few things happened to you.

1. when you tried to make yourself have the feeling, a strange thing happened. Your ability to make yourself feel it started going away.
2. you were terrified that if you let yourself think the thing your emotions would go something like this.

but in reality, it went a little more like this

3. the thought felt kinda weird without the emotion attached to it. You may have even gotten bored of it. Without the emotion behind it, the thought just felt kind of empty, not as impactful.

So, let's talk about it.

It starts with good old pavlov and his wonderful mutt.

Pavlov showed this thing called classical conditioning. It went like this

Pavlov would ring a bell and serve the dog food. Dog drooled because of food

Pavlov did this a lot.

Eventually, pavlov would ring the bell, and the dog drooled, even when food wasn't around.

See the dogs body became so acostomed that the bell meant food was coming that it prepared ahead of time.

Everytime you avoid your thoughts, you strengtens your body's reaction that that thought is a threat. You treat it like a threat, your body responds with emotions, and, well, it feels like a threat.

So, what did pavlov do to untrain his poor drooling doge?

He would ring the bell, over and over, but this time without food. Sure enough, over time. The dog's drooling response diminshed.

Does this sound like anything that happened with your emotions during this exercise, because it should.

You said. Okay brain, you've had an association for a while now that this thought = danger. Well, I'm going to keep thinking this thought, and danger is not going to happen.

And your brain is kinda like. Well, hello, this is kind of awkward now isn't it. Nothing is happening huh? This is a pretty tiring response you know? Getting all of these hormones and things pumped out for that thought. You're just going to keep thinking it are you? Let me give you other thoughts you are scared about so you stop. Not stopping are you?

And then it gets confused. It realizes that the hypothesis it had that the thought means danger isn't really proving true. In a way, you are 'burning out' the thought.

BUT then a weird thing happens

you think the thought again a while later.

ahh, that pang. Why is it back?

It's back because of a thing called spontaneous recovery.

Image result for spontaneous recovery

That means your brain has a short attention span and when given a break, forgets what it just learned. It goes, ah shit! that thought again! fear, danger!. BUT you'll notice it's not nearly as strong as it was at the beginning of the exercise.

And it won't be.

So what do you do? Burn it out again. Every time you feel the pang is an opportunity to burn the thought out.

Now, something else will have happened. When you started feeling better about that thought, your brain started bombarding you with a shit ton of other thoughts you were afraid of. Maybe it felt futile and like if you replaced one, another would pop up.

Nope. When that happens, it's nothing to feel sad about. It means you've won. The response NO LONGER CAUSES ENOUGH FEAR for your brain to worry about. So, your brain being the good chap it is, trying to keep you alive, finds the next one.


  1. Beautiful and compassionate! I am so very proud to call you my daughter! I'm so happy that you have become someone who is able to transform your judgements into love for a fellow human being and transcend your fears of that which is unknown to you ♡


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Argument Against Sociology Being a Bullshit Study

So, as a Sociology major I have (perhaps inevitably) come across people who have voiced their opinions on why sociology is a crock, convoluted, an unacceptable method for conducting science, and not a valid (impractical) study. I hope to address these issues and give a thorough defense of my field, for (obviously) if I had no defense, I should not be a sociology major. I do completely welcome criticism and comments to what I write, and in fact I would love some. I thoroughly believe that the best analysis is derived from discussion and (logical) argumentation. I have put in  bold  the main points since I realize many of you probably do not want to read my god-knows-how-long argument.  SO on with it. I guess I will address the different arguments I have come across one by one Sociology is not credible because it borrows from so many other fields .  Indeed, Sociology is extremely interdisciplinary, but I think the complexity is what makes it so grand. We could limit Sociology b

My problems with the strong is the new skinny campaign

When the 'strong is the new skinny' campaign first started, I was pretty excited about it. The first article I saw was a woman who used to be what she considered anorexic. She said she was weak, and barely ate. She fell in love with weight lifting, and said it gave her confidence, strength and courage. She explained how before lifting she was taught to deprive herself, to lack confidence in her body, and be weak. After lifting she felt proud of her new strength, could eat (and was supposed to eat) more, and felt a sense of progress towards muscle, versus progress towards being smaller. She posted new photos of herself showing she didn't look much different (she didn't 'get huge'). Her photos though were fairly normal looking. She probably had a healthy 10-20% body fat, and you could tell she had some solid muscle. Her muscle, however, wasn't rippling out of her skin, and it isn't supposed to be. There are two main types of weight training I want to tal