What do you do when your skin itches?
You scratch it, and it goes away! Problem solved. But sometimes, the skin gets a little too itchy, maybe it’s an allergy or something, so you start scratching, but the cells in the region are already inflamed and sensitive, and further scratching releases a chemical called histamine which exacerbates the whole inflammation.
This makes the itch return with greater intensity and of course, you will scratch again and it will keep getting worse! Now scratching your skin is a good solution for a normal fleeting itch but for an abnormal skin condition the ‘solution’ becomes part of the problem turning into a vicious cycle.
Turns out, these vicious cycles are much more common than we think.
Let’s say you fear rejection and feel overly anxious in social situations, so naturally, you avoid social gatherings and invitations to parties. You don’t try to make new friends and stay home every night. On the rare occasions when you have to socialize due to work or other stuff, you get more anxious than ever because you are out of practice.
Furthermore living alone with no friends or social life just makes you feel completely rejected which is the very thing that you fear!
Let’s take another example. Karen is overweight and hates it, so she eats some chocolate to cheer herself up. For a moment she does feel better but then she thinks about all the calories that she has consumed that will add to her weight and ends up feeling even more miserable.
These are all examples of us trying to get rid of unpleasant feelings by using control strategies that do make us feel better at that moment but in the long run, do more harm than good.
It is totally okay to use such control strategies when dealing with normal everyday life stress like taking a walk after a little argument with your partner or falling asleep on the couch after a grueling day’s work.
Worried about an important work deadline? Watching a few episodes of your favorite sitcom won’t do any harm! Unless you binge-watch the whole night and get even more anxious about the work. The same goes for zoning out using alcohol or drugs. Occasional consumption is totally fine, but when it becomes your go-to remedy for any worry, that’s when it becomes a problem.
In a nutshell: to find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings – but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.
Try to remember every single strategy you have ever used to get over unpleasant feelings.
It could be anything! Such as using drugs or alcohol, criticizing or chastising yourself, going into denial, blaming others, using visualization, reading self-help books, seeing a therapist, using positive affirmations, procrastination, praying(Lol), talking it through with friends, writing in your diary, smoking cigarettes, eating more, eating less, sleeping more, sleeping less, putting off important changes or decisions, throwing yourself into work/socializing/hobbies/exercise, or telling yourself ‘It will pass.’
Now ask yourself, did it help get rid of the thoughts and feelings in the long term? What did it cost you in time, energy, money, and health? Did it bring you closer to a more meaningful life?
We hear a lot of great advice from all over the internet, such as find a meaningful job, do this great workout, connect with friends and family, get out in nature, take up a hobby, join a club, learn a new instrument, contribute to a charity, learn new skills, get involved in your community and so on.
And all these activities can be deeply satisfying if you do them because they are genuinely important and meaningful to you.
I myself learned Piano when I was struggling with anxiety and depression, not only because it gave me a little relief for that moment, but also because I genuinely love music and that is the reason I still play it even when I’m not particularly worried.
But if these activities are used mainly to dodge unpleasant thoughts and feelings, chances are, they won’t be very rewarding. It’s hard to appreciate life when you’re running away from something threatening.
We will get into how we can deal with such thoughts and feelings in a more efficient way, but that’s for another post. For now, just try to be aware whenever you use any controlling strategy to make yourself feel better.
Increasing your self-awareness is the first step. Notice all the little things you do each day to dodge, change or blot out unpleasant thoughts and feelings. And when you find yourself using these control strategies, notice the consequences.
Notice your attempts at control and how they are working for you. Learn to see the trap for what it is. And look forward to the changes soon to come!