Fighting the Big White Polar Bear

Churchill is often quoted about his fight against the Black Dog of depression and his endless slog against the black dog that followed him throughout his life, yet few have realised that it’s not just the black dog that you need to worry about.

Because there’s another predator out there, one that often visits, one that silently sneaks up on our thoughts, but it’s not a black dog instead it’s a big white polar bear.

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

Sometimes when we don’t want to think of something in fact the reverse happens we think of it all the more, this is an accepted psychological phenomenon called Ironic Process Theory, and where this is most relevant is when we are feeling stressed, worried, and anxious.

Dostoevsky as quoted used to play the game of challenging others not to think of a polar bear, and akin to this sufferers of anxiety actually spend little of their time thinking about what they are anxious about but most of their time being anxious about being anxious.

Ask yourself next time you are feeling stressed are you instead just stressed about being stressed, or are you more worried about being worried, or instead anxious about being anxious, and if so you too have been bitten by the big white polar bear.

Compounding the grip of the bear, and what gives ironic process theory it’s real hold over us is not all of our thoughts, memories and emotions are as innocuous as not thinking about polar bears, try not to think of something traumatic or painful the next time these memories come to mind.

For many of us the anxiety we feel at any particular time, is not about the original problem it’s about anxiety about feeling anxious reinforced by the feelings in the body that tell us we are anxious, many of us suffer these second order anxieties that perpetuate themselves and smoulder in our consciousness constantly rekindled by our efforts to get rid of them.

It’s not just Ironic Process Theory Too much thinking about our thoughts and feelings take you away from the problems you need to sort in the first place, your mind is kept busy with negativity, you fail to clear your thoughts, your concentration is shot and relaxation is now a forgotten refuge.

Perhaps the first thing you need to do to defeat the white bear is just to check your thoughts when you are feeling worried, stressed or anxious, knowing that ironic process theory exists and being aware of the what is going on is the first step to defeating the bear.

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