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Control of Thoughts and Feelings

When an individual experiences an uncomfortable thought or feeling, a natural reaction may be to react in a manner that controls these experiences by either trying to get rid of, avoid, or escape it. While these strategies may be beneficial for dealing with everyday stress while being used in moderation, in situations that have positive outcomes, and in alignment in personal values, it may not always be the most effective way to handle these internal experiences. If control strategies occur when unwanted thoughts or feelings come and are done in excess, cannot work, and stop yourself from doing what you value, then they are no longer working for you. Control strategies can be divided into “fight” or “flight” categories, which is our body’s natural response when a perceived threat is detected (yes – our body even detects negative thoughts and emotions as a signal for potential danger, leading to physiological responses!) Flight strategies encompass trying to escape the negative feelings or thoughts. This includes hiding and escaping, distraction, and zoning out/numbing. In hiding/escaping, you escape situations which may elicit negative thoughts or emotions. For example, you miss work every time a coworker that causes you anxiety is present in order to avoid the anxiety. This ultimately leads your work performance to be poor, with this strategy being done in excess, not working for the situation, and not aligning with your values (e.g., being hardworking and dependable). Distraction is another flight strategy, in which you distract yourself from negative thoughts and feelings by focusing on something else. Perhaps during times of excess distress, you find yourself going online shopping in order to distract yourself from the present problem. Another flight control strategy is zoning out/numbing, which is when you try to cut yourself off from the uncomfortable internal experiences. This is most often occurs through substance abuse, though it can also be something like excessively zoning out and staring at the walls.

Next comes the fight strategies. This includes suppression, which is when you forcefully push unwanted feelings and thoughts either away from your mind or deep down inside. Arguing is another fight strategy in which you argue with your own thoughts to try to disprove them in a rational manner. For example, you may find yourself thinking, “I am worthless,” and yell back at this thought either in frustration or trying to invalidate it (though, acceptance and moving forward in alignment with our values may prove to be more fruitful that constantly being in this internal warfare with ourselves). Taking charge is another fight strategy in which you try to take charge of your thoughts by telling them what to do. This can include you telling your thoughts to just go away, or for yourself to just snap out of it, though in reality thoughts and feelings come and go. We don’t decide their existence, but rather what we do with them. Lastly self-bullying is a fight strategy, where you bully yourself after negative thoughts and feelings, calling yourself names such as an “idiot” or “loser” for having such experiences. Do any of these control strategies, fight or flight, resonate with you?

(Adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven Hayes and Russ Harris’s utilization in literature)

Tia Dasgupta, M.A.


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