How to Untangle from a Negative Emotional Cycle during this Difficult Time | Part One

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Samantha Levy, PhD
April 15, 2024 / 5 mins read

There is nothing as gut-wrenching as witnessing your child suffer. This is Part One of my series on helping parents through this particularly difficult time. You, as parents, are important, so we want you to be as healthy as possible. In addition, your physical and mental well-being affects your child, so it is crucial to work on physical and mental health from the top down in order to help the entire family.

In “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” the goal is to learn to accept one’s thoughts and feelings in order to live a more meaningful and less anxious, stressed, or depressed life. However, the word “acceptance” does not mean giving in or giving up. Acceptance means making room for uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and sensations without attempting to change or avoid them. Acceptance does not mean approval but rather a willingness to experience whatever arises.

The goal is to not struggle against one’s thoughts or feelings but also to not buy into them by believing them. When we either suppress or buy into negative thoughts, we engage in battles that are self-destructive. For example, if we are trying to suppress thoughts or feelings by eating junk food, drinking too much, sleeping too much, watching too much TV, etc., we harm ourselves in other ways. If we buy into our negative thoughts, then we get hooked on the negative emotions of guilt, worry, shame, sadness, judgment, and loneliness.

But we can unhook from these thoughts and feelings without suppressing them, struggling against them, or buying into them. Think of the finger trap you played with as a kid. If you pulled hard to try to get your fingers out, they got trapped even tighter – when you struggled, you made your situation worse. You had to relax your fingers and push them towards each other to release them.

The goal here is to look at your thoughts, as opposed to from your thoughts, in order to take a step back and give yourself some perspective. If you anchor yourself, you can watch the storm go by without getting swept up into it.

How To Do That?
This is a quick review with some tips and is not meant to be a substitute for treatment.

The goal is to experience your unhelpful thoughts as just words as if a radio is on in the background that you can hear but aren’t really paying attention to. I like to imagine that the thoughts or feelings are just going by on a train. You don’t have to jump on the train and you don’t have to derail the train. You can just watch it pass by and then disappear into the distance.

  • Notice and name your thoughts and feelings. For example, if you are worrying, “What if my daughter never gets better?” instead, say to yourself, “I am noticing that I am worrying that my daughter will never get better.” Noticing and naming take you a step back from the thought or feeling. There is a big emotional difference between “My son will always be in pain” and “I am noticing that I ruminate that my son will always be in pain.”

  • Name the story. One thing we can be certain about in life is that we cannot be certain about anything that will happen in the future. So, whatever we worry about happening in the future, it is just a story we are making up. Humans are programmed to tell stories. Since the beginning of time, we have told stories. We even tell stories during our sleep through dreams – we can’t help ourselves!

    So, in order to exert some sort of control, we tell stories about the future, too. Remind yourself that this is just a story you are making up. For example, if you are obsessing over the fact that your child will never be able to go to college because of his medical issues, tell yourself this is just a story you are making up.

    If you are ruminating on how your child will never be able to have friends and will always be isolated, you can say, “Ah, here comes the ‘she will be isolated forever’ story,” or, “Oh, the old favorite ‘she will be isolated forever’ story.” Reminding yourself that you are just making this up – because you cannot know what will happen in the future – helps take the emotion out of it.

  • Desensitize. Thoughts are just words that cannot actually threaten you. Remind yourself of that by desensitizing them. Sing your negative thoughts to the tune of “Jingle Bells” or “Happy Birthday.” Say the thought 10 times really fast. Say it over and over again with different accents and funny voices. Imagine typing the thought (or actually typing it) and changing the font, the color, and the spacing. If you are replaying images in your mind, imagine them at a fast speed, with subtitles, or on t-shirts. Changing it up or repeating it helps it to just feel like words and become less emotionally charged.

  • Ask yourself if your thought is helpful. Are you gaining anything from listening to it again? If the thought guides your actions, does it help you improve your life or your child’s life? Ask yourself what you get from buying into it. Don’t hold too strongly to any belief because beliefs will change over time. You can’t stop the thoughts from popping into your head, but you can choose whether to pay attention to them. Think of it like ads popping up on your computer screen. You can’t stop them from appearing, but you can choose whether to click on them.

  • Thank your mind. Our brains are wired to protect us. When we dwell on the past, our brains are saying, “Learn from those mistakes and don’t repeat them.” When we worry about the future, our brains are saying, “Be prepared in case this bad thing happens.” But we harm ourselves with that protection because it negatively affects how we think and feel, leading to maladaptive behaviors.

    You can sincerely thank your brain for trying to protect you, but tell it you are OK without it. The “thank you” is light and warm, not sarcastic. “There you are, mind, trying to protect me. Thanks, but I am OK on my own.” Or you can combine the story technique with the thanking technique, such as, “Ah yes, the ‘I am not doing enough for my child’ story. Thanks for trying to help me, mind.”

Overall, remember that thoughts are not necessarily facts. Just because we can think something does not make it true. Negative self-thoughts are normal – everyone has them. But we don’t have to give them power. Practice these techniques throughout the day, and hopefully, you will see a difference. It’s like training wheels – you won’t need to practice them so often or forever. Eventually, it will become second nature.

Don’t give up if you don’t feel better right away. It might take some time. And if all of this seems a lot like mindfulness (about which I have written a fair amount) – it is! These techniques are like the exercise of noticing your thoughts and watching them float away. It is all about noticing and accepting – but not buying into – negative thoughts.

I hope you can find yourself floating in the quicksand by leaning back and relaxing instead of struggling and sinking.