No White Bears: How to Turn off Your Brain When it Counts

I went surfing recently with my husband and some friends. After I caught a wave, I paddled back to the group and started talking about how my feet were slightly in the wrong place, and how I need to adjust my position on the board.

"Get out of your head!" my friend James said to me, "stop over thinking!"

A few days later, I was working out at San Diego Athletics, my CrossFit gym.

I was practicing the jerk, which is an Olympic weightlifting movement in which the barbell goes from the front rack position on the shoulders to locked out overhead. The most I had ever gotten overhead was 153-lb. Today, I was trying for a 163-lb, a 10-lb. personal record.

I failed my first three attempts.

"You're thinking too much!" the first coach, Anders, told me. "Weightlifting is for dumb people--just stop thinking about it."

Thinking and analyzing is what I do. It's a part of my personality and a big part of my job. As a writer, I get paid to pick a topic and then analyze all sides, thinking through every angle and nuance.

Here's what goes through my mind when someone tells me to stop thinking, or to get out of my head:

"Crap. I think too much. That's why I'll never make this lift (or ride this wave). I'm not cut out for athletics. What am I even doing here? I need to stop thinking ..." and so on.

Commanding someone to stop thinking is the equivalent of yelling at a hysterical person to calm down. It doesn't work.

This phenomenon has a name in psychology. It's called the "ironic process theory."

The idea was developed by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Wegner in the in the 1980s. Wegner was fascinated by a quote from the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "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."

Wegner decided to test this quote's assumption with a study. In it, he asked participants to try not to think of a white bear for five minutes. If they did think of a white bear, they had to ring a bell. The people in this group rang the bell about once a minute.

Then, Wegner had the same group make an effort to purposely think of a white bear. He had a separate group do the same--but the second group had never been asked to avoid thinking about white bears. The group who had previously tried to suppress their thoughts of white bears rang the bell much more than the other group.

Wegner concluded that trying to suppress a thought causes it to rebound even more prominently later.

Over the next decade, Wegner continued his research, and he found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind continually checks to see if the thought is coming up--which of course brings that thought to mind.

Not helpful, brain. Not helpful at all.

How do you get around the brain's tendency to think about exactly what you don't want to think about? Or how do you stop thinking at all?

Let's go back to that day when I was trying to get the 163-lb. barbell overhead. I knew, intellectually, this was a weight I could make. When I jerked 153-lb., it felt easy and smooth. But once something was at stake--in this case a 10-lb. PR--my technique and sense of flow went out the window.

After my fourth failed attempt, the second coach, Bryan, said to me, "You're afraid to get under that weight. You're just push-pressing it overhead." (The key to a successful jerk is to drive the bar up and then drop under the bar, legs bent in a lunge.)

Bryan was right. I wanted to stop thinking about the fact that this would be a PR, and just lift the weight. I wanted to stop over thinking, but the more I tried to stop, the more thoughts rushed into my brain.

I decided I was going to go for a fifth and final attempt. As I walked toward the bar, a third coach, Justin, walked by and said quietly and calmly, "Really plant that front foot. Make it loud enough so I can hear it across the gym."

I racked the bar on my chest, and thought of that one thing Justin told me.

"Loud foot," I thought. The next thing I knew the bar was overhead, and I was standing up with the weight.

The specific cue Justin gave me almost didn't matter. What he did was give my mind something to do other than fight a war with itself about what not to think about.

In his years researching ironic process theory, Wegner came up with a few ways to trick the mind.

One of them is exactly what Justin provided for me: pick an "absorbing distractor" and think about that instead. Come up with a thought that is powerful enough to distract the mind from the poisonous thought. In this case, I focused so hard on stomping my foot, I forgot about the weight of the bar, and how much I wanted to be able to put it overhead. Even better, the thought was something I could translate into physical action.

Wegner also found multi-tasking makes it harder for us to banish unwanted thoughts. It's counterintuitive, but busying the mind does not help. Pick one thought or action, and focus the mind on that one thing.

Negative thoughts are present throughout our day, not just when we're practicing a sport. If you're plagued by anxious or troubling thoughts, Wegner also recommends allowing yourself to think the negative thoughts for a certain amount of time on a specific day. Once you schedule a time to indulge in those thoughts, the mind stops working so hard to prevent them.

Our culture has a bias towards relentless positive thinking that's unrealistic and ineffective. We all have negative, nervous thoughts. The trick is to learn how to manage them.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned from dipping a toe into the world of meditation and mindfulness is that you don't need to banish anxious thoughts, or thoughts in general. Don't deny the thoughts, but instead learn how to calmly acknowledge their existence and then intentionally put the focus of the mind elsewhere.