Results by John Austin, PhD

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Can You Suppress Pain?

When I was in high school and college, I worked for a home improvement company that sold replacement windows, doors, and roofing. I loved it. It was way more exciting and engaging than it sounds, though, because of the two people who led the company. 

It was a small company, and it had the excitement of a start-up, even though it was before the internet was invented, and that sort of start-up model had not really been created yet. The leaders were both incredibly smart, very persuasive, and willing to take lots of risks and experiment. We were building it together…each day.

One of the leaders, Jon, had dropped out of Harvard to start this business, and I remember a time when his partner told a story about how when Jon had his wisdom teeth removed, he did it with no anesthetic.

I was shocked. When I asked Jon why he would do something so crazy, he said, I wanted to have the experience.” 

Yikes. I don’t know about you, but I’d pick LOTS of experiences to have before that one.

I recalled this story today while in a 60-minute Peloton Powerzone cycling class. The class was 60 minutes, and it was pretty hard. Toward the end, when it started getting especially difficult, the instructor said, “I know you’re having negative thoughts…I can’t do this…it hurts too bad…whatever.” She continued… “Just say NO to those thoughts and push them out of your mind.”

Well, at this point, even though I was suffering through the ride too, the geeky behavioral psychologist side of my brain switched on because…

…trying not to think of something…called “thought suppression”…doesn’t work! 

Let me demonstrate. Right now, don’t think of a pink elephant.

…How did you do? My guess is you failed like every other human does when they try to suppress a thought. The same goes for your internal feelings, dirty pain (self-inflicted pain brought on by anxious thoughts), and other experiences. In fact, research has shown that if you suppress a thought, you make it MORE likely to occur again and experience a host of other psychological challenges.

The recent chapter on the topic suggests … 

“Experiential avoidance (EA), or the unwillingness to remain in contact with distressing internal experiences along with the attempts to control or avoid distressing internal experiences, has been associated with a range of psychopathological symptoms across a range of clinical presentations of anxiety and fear.” (Hayes-Skelton & Eustis, 2020)

So … if you can’t ignore or suppress them … what do you do when you’re having negative thoughts?

Acceptance is one approach that seems to work very well. That’s not to say you should give up and live with it if something makes you unhappy. It’s more like observing the thoughts as they happen and realizing that you are not your thoughts.

My friend Jon was able to experience the pain of wisdom tooth removal and recognize that the pain is just a series of sensations (don’t try this at home, lol!).

Instead of telling me to push my negative thoughts down, my Pelton instructor might have said, “Thinking that you can’t do this is just a thought. It’s a set of electrical impulses, not a real thing. It does not reflect reality. It’s just some stuff in your head, so notice the thoughts but don’t do anything with them.”

Ok. I admit, that is not as catchy as “Reject those thoughts! You can do this!”

This is also relevant to leaders and coworkers. Remember that the thing that is bothering you in the back of your head is just a stimulus that’s happening, and it is not you. 

Observe it, and go do something great anyway!

PS: if you’re a Peloton fan like me, connect with me there … my screen name is DrJohn_Bx

Hayes-Skelton, S. A., & Eustis, E. H. (2020). Experiential avoidance. In J. S. Abramowitz & S. M. Blakey (Eds.), Clinical handbook of fear and anxiety: Maintenance processes and treatment mechanisms (pp. 115–131). American Psychological Association.

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