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The White Bear Problem

The White Bear Problem
April 2, 2018 Dan Raimondi

Also known as “Ironic Process Theory“, this is the tendency to think about something more when you’re trying to think about it less. Whether it be a bug bite you shouldn’t scratch or the candy bar you shouldn’t eat, the more you resist thinking about it, the more you’re likely to only think about it.

In a recent NY Times article called, “Resistance is Futile“, the author notes that instead of trying to resist certain habits or urges, replace them instead with something else for your mind to fixate on. The author uses a sip of water or doing some push-ups, (or whatever your brain can think of) to replace the old habit.

Here is another example: if you’ve had some mild back pain, the minute you notice yourself starting to fixate on the pain, do some “air deadlifts.” Stand up, put your hands on your thighs, and imagine you’re doing a deadlift but without any weight. This will accomplish 2 big things: 1) you’ll probably fixate less on the pain and more on the movement 2) you’ll reinforce to your brain that nothing is seriously injured (structurally damaged). The key is to pick a movement (or a couple of movements) that don’t produce any painful symptoms. So if the air deadlifts recreate the pain, try bodyweight squats. If neither causes pain, do both, maybe for 5 repetitions each.

It is critical when dealing with pain to focus your brain on what you can do as opposed to what you can’t. The more you dwell on the sensation of pain and “catastrophize” your situation, the worse it will likely get. Instead of just “not thinking” about your pain, try replacing it instead with some pain-free movement.