I recently came across the phrase 'thinking is a defense mechanism'.
At first that struck me as odd. Partly because when I read 'defense mechanisms', I think of avoidant and unhelpful behaviors, and more so because I'm an over-thinker.
I've always been one to ruminate on my thoughts until I don't feel as suffocated by them anymore, whereas, the idea of simply feeling your unpleasant emotions seems painful to me. I don't want to focus on feeling sad or anxious, I just want to figure out how to stop feeling those things with the tools I have at my disposal, which are my thoughts and rationality.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
A couple of months ago I was introduced to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Instead of helping people to control their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, ACT encourages clients to welcome and accept their feelings, by allowing them to come and go without judging, changing or interacting with them.
By practicing acceptance you can create a distance between yourself and the thoughts and feelings you experience. You become an observer. So instead of analyzing this feeling of anxiety, or attributing it to myself, e.g "I struggle in social situations because I am an anxious person", I can simply be aware and undefined by it. This is known as Cognitive Defusion. Whereas, once your thoughts and feelings become fused together, it can become very difficult to identify what are rational thoughts and behaviors and what is influenced by your unpleasant feelings.
Thinking as a defense mechanism
Going back to that original phrase 'thinking is a defense mechanism'; It's the process of thinking that prevents me from accepting my emotions.
By ruminating on your feelings you use up your attentional memory, leaving no capacity to feel the emotion. By repeatedly thinking about an emotion, I'd essentially be distracting myself from it, which only exacerbates the intensity of the feeling.
At the same time as ignoring the experience of a feeling, I'd make interpretations and manipulate my thoughts so that the feeling disappeared. The anxiety and sadness became hidden and suppressed by layers of thoughts until I could no longer experience or process that original feeling. Whilst a suppressed emotion seems to disappear, realistically it remains right below the surface; influencing further thoughts and actions. I'd just be less aware and less able to do something about it. Not ideal.
My advice is to sit with those uncomfortable emotions and allow yourself to feel them. The biggest barrier for me is the fear that comes with not knowing how bad that feeling will be, but I've found it's never as bad as you build it up to be. Once you open yourself up and welcome in the anxiety or sadness, you'll find it's not as overwhelming or scary as you expected, and it's much healthier than the alternative.
To learn more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the benefits of emotional acceptance we've included some links you can follow!
Thank you to Vladimir Kudinov for the brilliant photograph!