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  • Mary Katherine L

Metaphors For Coping: Your Brain Is a Theater

In my last post I discussed why thought-stopping is an ineffective coping strategy. In this post and the next, I'll offer two metaphors that can be used as alternative coping strategies.

About a decade ago I binge-watched the first few seasons of "The Walking Dead." During the couple of weeks it took me to do so, whenever I saw someone walking down the street, I would think they were a zombie before I managed to remember that we weren't living in an apocalypse.

For the most part, however, distinguishing entertainment from real life isn't very difficult. I don't worry that I'm being followed by James Bond's nemesis, nor do I believe that half of the world vanished when Thanos snapped his fingers.

In this post, I'll share how the skill of watching TV, movies, and theatre can be a coping skill for dealing with unhelpful thoughts.

Typically, we treat ourselves as the performer of our thoughts. We behave as method actors, so committed to our performance that we become it. (Remember Austin Butler after filming Elvis? He worked so hard to embody the rockstar that it took him months to lose Presley's distinct accent after his role ended.)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls this cognitive fusion. Russ Harris describes, "In a state of fusion, a thought can seem like

  • the absolute truth;

  • a command you have to obey or a rule you have to follow;

  • a threat you need to get rid of as soon as possible;

  • something that's happening right here and now even though it's about the past or the future;

  • something very important that requires all your attention;

  • something you won't let go of even if worsens your life."

The opposite of cognitive fusion is cognitive defusion. Russ Harris details, "In a state of defusion, you recognize that a thought

  • may or may not be true;

  • is definitely not a command you have to obey or a rule you have to follow;

  • is definitely not a threat to you;

  • is not something happening in the physical world—it's merely words or pictures inside your head;

  • may or may not be important—you have a choice as to how much attention you pay it;

  • can be allowed to come and go of its own accord without any need for you to hold on to it or push it away."

We can practice defusion by treating ourselves as the audience to our thoughts, instead of the performer.

From the audience, the emotions of the performance are no less real. You still feel the grief, anger, despair, joy, etc. that the thoughts conjure. But, from the audience, you are more aware that there is a reality that exists outside of the performance and that the performance has an end. As an audience member, the performance may still change you (I've certainly left a movie with a different outlook on something than when I entered), or it may roll off you so easily that you forget about the performance as soon as it ends.

(Personally, when I feel very overwhelmed, my thoughts recite a very impressive monologue about running away to create a new identity and start a life somewhere no one knows me. By taking a seat in the audience, instead of panicking and diving deeper into the feeling of being overwhelmed, I can laugh at myself a bit and wait patiently for my thoughts to become more centered.)

So, the next time your mind begins one of its tirades, try this coping skill out: Imagine viewing the performance that is your thoughts instead of delivering it.


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