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What a Sticky Mind Means

Are you prone to catastrophic thoughts and unrelenting worry?

Source: PicoStudio/Shutterstock
Source: PicoStudio/Shutterstock

Hello! Marty Seif and Sally Winston, two psychologists who have been specializing in anxiety disorders and OCD for over four decades. We began before panic disorder was in the DSM and everyone thought OCD was rare and treatment-resistant. For years, panic disorder, phobias, and OCD—classified as chronic intermittent disorders—caused enormous unnecessary suffering and disability, because it turns out that they are, in fact, highly treatable if the right approach is taken.

In the future, we will be sharing with you contemporary thinking about what underlies anxiety symptoms, why some efforts to treat phobias, panic, ongoing unrelenting worry (what we call toxic worry), obsessions and compulsions don’t really work, and we will present the most contemporary perspectives on what does work. We will be looking at the processes that maintain and fuel symptoms and how to interrupt these processes.

Stickiness of the mind is the term we use for a biologically based trait that is experienced as repetitive looping thinking, a sense of getting mired in worry, a talent for imaginative flights into catastrophic images and thoughts, and a tendency for junk channels of the mind to get loud and insistent instead of simply flowing by. It is highly heritable, so it tends to run in families, and it is sensitive to stress such as fatigue, illness, or chronic conflict. It also increases with positive stress like excitement. Stickiness is not a sign of mental illness: it is a characteristic that, once understood, can be incorporated into a full and meaningful life.

One very interesting facet of sticky thoughts is that they do not respond to direct efforts to get rid of them. In fact, resisting these thoughts by arguing with them, distracting from them, trying to substitute other thoughts, seeking reassurance about them, recoiling in horror, or admonishing oneself simply results in their return or the intrusion of even more distressing thoughts. Sometimes not only do those thoughts continue to repeat, but you add worry and shame and anger about the fact that you are helpless to get rid of them—and then you worry about yourself. This fruitless struggle with stickiness is called paradoxical effort. Your efforts to calm yourself works backward. It is a struggle that escalates.

Because stickiness has a tendency to make thoughts seem important and urgent—even when they are not—these thoughts seem to demand a vigorous response. As strange as this may seem, the most effective way to live with a sticky mind is not to struggle with it, but to change your relationship with it. This means taking a broader view, a step back, an attitude of curiosity and humor instead of judgment, alarm, and urgency. It is important to learn how to identify and label sticky thoughts: despite how they feel, sticky thoughts are not emergencies, warnings or signals. Sticky thoughts taken too seriously create a reluctance to take any risks at all, and to avoid triggering worries or anxious experiences, leading to limitations in living and feelings of danger, frailty, disability, and profound distress.

If you are living with a sticky mind, a very different approach is clearly needed, an approach that we call therapeutic surrender. Therapeutic surrender starts with a shift in attitude which works indirectly to relieve the distress and limitations associated with having a sticky mind. It helps to see thoughts for what they truly are—just thoughts—no matter what they are about nor how dire their content. It is based on practicing disentanglement—learning how not to get caught up in the flypaper of a sticky mind by attributing too much meaning to false alarms, conditioned reactions and automatic associations.

In the months ahead, we will address a wide variety of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive problems. Our approach may seem counter-intuitive: it is not about relaxation, or calming or stress management. It is also not about answering “why?” questions or even about rational argument with irrational thoughts. It is a meta-cognitive approach to mechanisms and processes to embrace a sticky mind and take away its power to lead you astray and rob you of a full life.