by Shane Fookes, MA MDiv, Registered Counseling Associate
One of the most common challenges I hear from clients (and experience myself!) involves “getting lost in my head.” It happens when we feel overwhelmed and stressed. It also happens when we face an important decision that doesn’t have a clear solution. And how about the times we’re driving down the road and we get so caught up in our thoughts we don’t remember anything from the past several miles!
Trapped By Thoughts
For many of us, these thoughts are similar to a hamster running full speed on the wheel in its cage. They go really, really fast, but don’t actually go anywhere. Many mental health conditions find root in this problem. Depression brings its thoughts of doom. Anxiety brings its thoughts of endless potential dangers. Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) likely face the greatest challenge as intense, unwelcome thoughts intertwine with seemingly helpful behaviors that become paralyzing and destructive.
So, what gets us trapped on the thought hamster wheel?
Well, in a nutshell, we have mental problem-solving “rules” that we slavishly obey. This mental inflexibility keeps us “stuck” in unhelpful thought patterns. This can be hard to recognize and confront because the rules are, in and of themselves, generally quite helpful! But here’s the kicker: the problem-solving part of your mind often does not know how or when the rules become harmful rather than helpful.
Consider this sequence of thoughts from a person struggling with anxiety: Something is wrong. I have to do something. This is too much for me. I don’t know what to do.
Recognize that? Now, at first glance, you likely don’t see these simple statements as “rules.” But thoughts do not arise from nowhere! And, with a little effort, you can find a rule behind each statement. Such as…
- Something is wrong. Anxiety is not okay and indicates a problem.
- I have to do something. I have to solve the problem of anxiety in order to be okay.
- This is too much for me, I can only handle a certain level of emotional discomfort and any more than that is harmful.
- I don’t know what to do. I should have a plan for every difficult experience.
Not only is your mind full of such rules, but you have a “coach” – or better yet, a “dictator” – also present in your mind to make sure you follow the rules. The coach/dictator and the seemingly endless rules that dominate your mind makes finding any relief difficult. This leads to inflexible thinking patterns that provoke and extend mental and emotional distress.
Three C’s of Inflexibility
In his book A Liberated Mind, Dr. Steven C. Hayes provides three human thinking processes that contribute to our mental inflexibility. The first, confirmation effect, explains how your mind distorts experiences to confirm a previously held rule. For example, you’ll hear a gambler say, “The dice are due.” as if the next roll is dependent on previous rolls (it’s not). Social science research has shown that knowing a rule (even an accurate one) actually interferes with learning and creative thinking. Anyone who’s participated in a brainstorming session that starts with “no right or wrong answers and no limitations of time & money” is easier said than done!
The second “C”, coherence effect, describes how your mind oversimplifies explanations and assessments to fit within a rule or set of rules. We end up collecting and using simple slogans and platitudes to explain complex events. For example, when a wife does something her husband doesn’t understand, he may think and/or say something like, “Women are crazy.” This is often done with psychological labels like OCD, PTSD, and ADHD when used to avoid responsibility for thoughts and behaviors.
The third “C”, compliance effect, captures how we abide by certain rules to earn approval from “rule givers” we have (or have had) in our lives. This is especially true of rules (both spoken and unspoken) we learned from parents and other childhood authorities.
Now, to be clear, rules are necessary and often helpful. The trouble starts when the rules become so entrenched you cannot adapt when they are unhelpful. The good news: you can develop practical skills to gain mental flexibility. And that is the topic of my next post.
Consider Working With A Christian Counselor in Hillsboro, OR
Our Clackamas and Beaverton-based counselors are excited to work with you, wherever you are in Oregon. You don’t have to be stuck in your own head. We can help you get back on track in a way that aligns with your faith and values. When you are ready to start online Christian counseling in Oregon, follow these simple steps:
- Learn about our therapy team in Beaverton and our caring counselors in Clackamas
- Schedule an appointment with your preferred therapist, or contact us with questions
- Feel more connected to the important people in your life
Other Mental Health Services at Life Discovery Counseling in Oregon
If you are in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, Hillsboro, or Beaverton, we can help you in person at one of our comfortable therapy clinics. Christian counseling is the cornerstone of our approach to therapy. Not only do we see adults, but children in counseling too. We also work with depression treatment, anxiety therapy, trauma therapy and PTSD treatment, relationship issues, marriage problems, and postpartum counseling. No matter where you are in the state, we can provide the support you need with online therapy in Oregon. Once you’re ready to start, we’re ready to meet you. Let’s connect!
About the Author
Shane Fookes is a graduate of Western Seminary’s Counseling program and a Registered Counseling Associate. He served as a pastor for 17 years and is still involved in leading churches. He writes about marriage and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and spiritual development.