If you spend any time near the ocean, you are likely to hear about a dangerous sea condition known as a Rip Tide. Rip Tides are responsible for dozens of drownings each year, rapidly sweeping unsuspecting swimmers out to sea. Yet, these deaths are preventable if you know how to respond to a Rip Tide.
You see, a Rip Tide is a narrow band of flowing water current strong enough to carry the average swimmer away from shore and farther out in the ocean than he could swim back. When the swimmer first experiences the pull of the Rip Tide, there are two predictable responses: 1) pray to heaven, 2) swim like hell against the tide and back toward land. While praying may be helpful, swimming against the tide is not. Nor is swimming with the tide. To escape the Rip Tide, a swimmer must swim parallel to the shore and out of the tide.
The human mind, it appears, is not unlike a Rip Tide, particularly when it comes to obsessive thinking. When trapped in an obsessive thought (Will my business survive the economy? Is he having an affair? Will the biopsy reveal cancer?), the natural tendency is to go with the current and wallow in the worst case scenario.
Psychologists call this catastrophic thinking. After you have been drowning in a tide of worry, negativity, and painful “what if’s,” the next urge is to swim against the tide. You do this by hoping very hard something bad won’t happen, can’t happen, shouldn’t happen. You entertain this thinking for one simple reason—it makes you feel more powerful, as if you have a measure of control over the matter by worrying/obsessing about it.
Stated another way, you feel considerably more vulnerable when not obsessing about important issues. The problem with obsessive, worrisome thinking is that it creates a subjective hell for you and affords no solution to the problem(s) at hand.
So if obsessing doesn’t help, and fighting the obsession doesn’t work, what to do?
Psychological research seems to support the Rip Tide solution of swimming out of the current. When University of Texas students were asked not to think about a white bear no matter what they did, the findings were quite revealing. The harder they tried not to think about the white bear, the more they thought about it! Conversely, another group of students was instructed that they probably would think about a white bear because it had been suggested to them. Interestingly, when they did not worry but gently let the white bear go, they thought about it significantly less!
It appears, then, that fighting an obsessive thought seems to strengthen the power of that thought, whereas gently releasing it (or swimming out of it) provides more peace of mind. Ironically, mentally swimming out of the tide feels at first like a loss of control. If I’m not thinking/obsessing about a problem, I feel powerless to fix it. In reality, however, by giving up the worry I am actually regaining control over the only thing I can control in the situation—my mind . . .
Because the mind is a terrible place to drown.