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The challenge of sitting with our thoughts


One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, once said, "My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone." It seems that more and more of us are finding that being alone with our thoughts can be a truly terrifying activity. When was the last time you spent time doing nothing? Take out the social media and electronic distractions, and what do you have left when you are alone? Where does your mind go?

I came across a study recently that was too fascinating not to share. Many of you may have already read about it, but it got me thinking about how our minds work. The article was published in Science magazine, and the title was "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind." In this article, authors looked at 11 different scientific studies, and found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think. They found that the participants enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. The conclusion that was drawn was that most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. I notice this tendency in myself and how difficult it is to just sit and be, rather than do. 

The set up of most of the studies was using college-student participants and having them spend time by themselves in an unadorned room (for 6 to 15 min, depending on the study) after storing all of their belongings, including cell phones and writing implements. The participants were typically asked to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, with the only rules being that they should remain in their seats and stay awake. After this thinking period, participants answered questions about how enjoyable the experience was and how hard it was to concentrate. Next the researchers wanted to find out if participants would enjoy themselves more if they have something to do. In this study, researchers randomly assigned participants to entertain themselves with their own thoughts or to engage in external activities (such as reading a book, listening to music, or surfing the Web). They asked the latter participants not to communicate with others (ex via texting or emailing), so that they could compare nonsocial external activities (such as reading) with a nonsocial internal activity (thinking). The results were that participants enjoyed the external activities much more than just thinking, found it easier to concentrate, and reported that their minds wandered less. The scientists then repeated these experiments again with non-college students and found similar results. 
This finding especially fascinated me: Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation—especially men. Sixty-seven percent of men (12 of 18) gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period, not including one outlier who administered 190 shocks to himself! But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid. What does that say about how much fear we as humans have of being alone with our thoughts?! 

This was a beautifully written quote at the end of the article: Research has shown that minds are difficult to control however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

As a therapist who gets to journey into many peoples thought processes, I can testify that minds are can be very tricky things to change. More often than not, I use CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to challenge client's thoughts and help them have more control over what script is running in their head. I also enjoy using the principles of mindfulness to help clients notice where their minds typically go, let go of the anxiety or depression, and just be still. It is much easier on paper than it is in reality, but the hard work of looking at your thoughts in therapy is completely worth it.

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