If I come out and say whatever you do in the next minute, do not think about a white elephant, most of us will immediately think of a white elephant. The more we try not to think about something the higher probability that we will think about it (Winnerman, 2011).

As a friend, spouse or mentor, it is therefore unhelpful for me to say, ‘don’t think about your sadness, anger, anxiety related to your crops, cattle or the weather.’ You are much more likely to think about your sadness, anger, anxiety if I say don’t! The same can be said if you deliver the same ‘don’t think about’ message to yourself.

Let’s break it down:

Fact: If I don’t want to feel a particular way, the feeling will hang around longer if I say I don’t want to think about it. Why? Because the mind is wired to check in on unwanted thoughts and feelings. It’s like your mind does a search to ensure there is nothing there and in doing so, you bring up the feeling or thought again (Winnerman, 2011).

Fact: If I try to push a thought or feeling away without acknowledging it first, it is akin to sending it to a place where it gets stronger. As Germer (2009) explains, “when you resist something, it goes into the basement and lifts weights (p. 24). In short, what we resist, persists and more likely you will feel stuck, crushed or suffocated by it.

So, what do we do?

Fact: Providing yourself with something to think about in place of that emotion or thought, after acknowledging the presence of your emotion or thought can greatly increase your ability to not think about it constantly (Van Dijk, 2013).

  1. Acknowledge the experience (thoughts, emotions and sensations) that is happening.
  2. Turn your mind to something else. Move attention elsewhere. Rather than judging the experience, just notice it. If ignoring the thought or emotion doesn’t help us, we must instead recognize ‘I am feeling anxious right now because the crops are not growing well.’ Doing so does not make us weak or less than. Doing so solidifies that we are capable of managing our thoughts and feelings because we are willing and courageous enough to look at them. Most likely if you are feeling this way about your crops, other farmers are too.
  3. Check in to see where in the body you are feeling this thought or emotion or sensation. For instance, ask yourself am I crunching my toes, holding my breath, grinding my teeth, biting my lip, cheek or nails, scratching when I think about the crops not growing. Focus your energy on that one part and slowly start to release the tension. You can even tense up in that area again and slowly let go and repeat a few times (look up paired muscle relaxation if you are interested in learning more about this technique).
  4. Use a coping statement like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘right now I have some feelings I don’t like; they will be over with soon and I’ll be fine’ as a way to support the realization that the thought or emotion is present (Richards, 2020). You could also use a phrase like ‘even though I am feeling anxious, I love and accept myself.’
  5. Distract with activities that hold your attention. Make a list of activities that you like to do that will sustain your attention for a period of time such as walking, calling a friend, watching a tv show, listening to music, organizing tools, sweeping the shop, washing equipment, hanging out with your fury friend, checking fences, counting bales. The list needs to be updated regularly and keep it close by so you can grab it when you are having difficulty switching your focus. Note that these activities must be time limited, and it is best to check in after a period of time to see if you are still feeling overwhelmed by the thought or emotion or sensation. If you are not, move on from the distraction activity and back to your scheduled day. Checking in to see if the activity has done its job allows you to feel good about taking a break.

Some may feel they do not have time to take a break. Don’t you know I am a farmer! As the daughter of a successful dairy farmer for over 40 years, I am acutely aware of the stress and time burden that farmers face. I am also aware that 1 in 4 farmers have also thought about suicide and that all that pushing away of our thoughts, emotions and fears, isn’t helping anyone. In fact, it may push ourselves and families further into isolation and crisis. Therefore, I offer these activities and ideas as a starting point in changing the way we do things. As Viktor Frankl, once said ‘when we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’

By Kirsten Camartin MSW RSW DTATI @kirstencamartin

References

Frankl, V. (1970). Man’s Search for Meaning. An Introduction to logotherapy. Touchtstone books.

Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Guilford Publications.

Richards, T. (2020). Coping statements for anxiety. The Anxiety Network. Anxietynetwork.com.

Van Dijk, S. (2013). DBT made simple. A step by step guide to dialectical behavior therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

Winnerman, L. (2011). Suppressing the ‘white bears.’ Monitor on psychology, vol 42, No. 9.

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