Opposite Action

Opposite Action

Opposite Action

“Sorry Doc, I was too stressed out to make it in last week.” This sentence was said to me by a therapy client, letting me know why they’d missed the previous session. Often times in life, we experience periods of increased stress. Times when we aren’t sleeping as well, or when we’re in a funk at work. Or maybe having frequent arguments with a spouse. Sometimes when we are dealing with greater stress, we feel an urge to withdraw, to pull into ourselves, and stop doing the things that have helped us in the past–like going to therapy and talking about what’s stressing us out, and getting some help with it.

Recently a friend of mine, who has been meditating and using mindfulness regularly, experienced a health scare. This left him with a lot of unknowns and unanswered questions. As I spoke to him about how he is handling it and how he’s feeling, I mentioned that this would be a great opportunity for him to take advantage of all the work he has been doing on his ability to accept his emotions and really use the skills he’s developed. His reaction to my suggestion wasn’t super positive. And I have to say, I’m not that surprised.

Emotions have accompanying “action tendencies” and when we are feeling anxious or feeling like life is uncertain, one common tendency is to go back to what is familiar and what has been comforting in the past. For him, it’s (I’m making an assumption here) worrying. For someone who is feeling overwhelmed by life in general, the action urge might be to stay in bed and pull the covers up. But one thing we know from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) (a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, and heavily influenced by mindfulness and acceptance approaches) is that “Opposite Action” can be what’s most effective. So that, for example, when you have the urge to give up and stay in bed, what might be most helpful is get out there and interact with the world. Will it be hard? Certainly. But it can really help to combat those feelings. It can also give you a sense of mastery for being able to set a goal and accomplish it.

To my friend I would suggest that even though the anxiety about this unknown in his life might be justified, he should do what’s most effective, what will bring him closer to his goals. And so rather than allow his worries to pile up and dominate his thoughts, and then spend effort trying to fight those worries, he should take a nice deep, slow breath, and remember that he can only control what he can control. And that might not be his thoughts, or necessarily what happens with this health issue. But he can control how he reacts to those thoughts: whether he gets stuck on them, or whether he notices them, labels them, and lets them go.