Sitting with Uncomfortable Thoughts

Many of us are afraid of the pain that sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can bring. When we are depressed, we become dominated by the flow of negative thoughts about ourselves, others, and the world around us. When we are anxious, we experience a tightness in our chest, tingling sensations, restlessness, agitation, dizziness, and headaches. It is no wonder we become afraid of these experiences, and this fear drives a need within us to escape in the form of numbing ourselves in various ways (e.g., drugs, alcohol, gambling, work, etc.).

A relatable form of escape that has become normalized in our culture is the way we use our smartphones. These handheld companions make it possible for us to avoid contemplating our inner lives when we have YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok at our fingertips to keep us distracted. We also lose ourselves in our streaming services (Netflix, Crave, Disney+, etc.) and the sensationalism of news programs. The consequence of this is that we are not fully processing our thoughts and emotions before moving on to the next distraction, and these experiences become trapped within us to eventually resurface as mental health issues.

As an experiment, try handing your smartphone to a loved one and see how long you can last without it. What kind of feelings come up? What thoughts go through your mind? Does your body react in any way? … What are you running from? You might find there is something specific you have been trying to ignore, such as a difficult memory or recent conflict. You might also be confronted with the more general feeling of existential anxiety that is part of the human experience.

Instead of escaping, choose instead to simply sit and allow your thoughts and feelings to come up inside you without clinging, resisting, or judging them. Here is where you might practice the important cognitive therapy skill of labelling your thoughts and physical sensations to build self-awareness. Make no mistake, this is not an invitation to ruminate and brood as we often do throughout the day, nor is this an easy experience: it takes a lot of courage to allow yourself to feel every bit of the experience so that it may pass through you rather than stuffing it back down. It is for this reason that if the types of thoughts, memories, and feelings you are dealing with are highly traumatic, it might be best to practice these exercises with the guidance of a therapist.

If this practice of sitting and labelling internal experiences sounds familiar to you, that is because it is a key component of mindfulness meditation; an incredibly powerful tool for those who wish to find more calm and serenity in their life. The ability to accurately identify, pick apart and label our internal experience is determined by self-awareness and our emotional vocabulary, which are also skills that can be further developed with the guidance of a therapist. If you are interested in learning independently and cultivating a mindfulness practice of your own, here are some resources to get you started:

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