Emerge Therapy

The Amazon Mind – What Harry Potter Taught me about intrusive thoughts

General

I bought my grandson some Harry Potter frog chocolate last Christmas from the online retailer, Amazon (and yes other online retailers do exist). Throughout January I was inundated with marketing emails from Amazon offering me Harry Potter related purchases. “Buy this lovely Harry Potter wand” followed by “How About these Gryffindor Pyjamas?” The same thing happened when I browsed the Amazon website. “You will just love this collectible Quidditch set” screamed my ‘recommendations for you’ section. Now I am not a huge Harry Potter fan.I enjoyed the films but was not interested in purchasing further merchandise. As a result, I did not click on any of these links and slowly, over time my feed reverted to my normal diet of psychotherapy books, triathlon gear, and classical music.

 

As you are probably aware Amazon, like other online retailers, has an algorithm that links its myriad of products into similar groups. It then makes assumptions about what I may choose to buy based on my existing buying and browsing habits. Therefore if I buy one Harry Product the algorithm assumes I may be interested in others. Similarly, if I buy I book on Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy I may be interested in others, or perhaps in mental health in general. So what has the Amazon algorithm got to to do with intrusive thoughts?

As I began to look at my own thought patterns, and those of my clients, I noticed that the human mind seems to work in a similar way. This seems particularly true of my clients with anxiety, but I believe is true for all of us to some extent? Have you ever tried to meditate? It sounds like a simple task, sit quietly and observe the in and out flow of your breath. And for about 10 seconds it is? Then your mind starts to wander. It seems whenever your mind is empty or unfocused your brain wants to fill it with something. But with what? This is where your mind works a bit like the Amazon algorithm, it looks for the things you think about most often, the things it believes you like. For me, that might be food or client work. But for people with more negative intrusive thoughts, it is very often the very thing you don’t want to think about that comes most readily to mind. Your own internal mental algorithm fills the empty mind with the thing you most often think about! This is why anxiety and other negative intrusive thoughts can be so difficult to manage.

Perhaps you often worry that you are not good enough, that you may fail, or that others are judging you. When these thoughts come to mind it is likely that you attach to them – that they stay around for some time as you ruminate them. Each time you ruminate on a negative thought it is like clicking a link on Amazon. It seems to reinforce the strength of the negative thought and thus the likelihood it will return.

Try this simple exercise. Close your eyes for 20 seconds and try NOT to think about a White Bear. I expect, like most people, you found it impossible. In trying not to think about a White Bear we almost certainly have to bring to mind an image of a White Bear. This also explains why trying to simple suppress unwanted or negative thoughts rarely works. In fact, it often makes them stronger. The only way to succeed in the White Bear challenge is to choose to think about something completely different. So instead of trying not to think about a White Bear think about a horse, or an elephant, anything you want except that damn bear!

This gives us an insight into how to combat our own intrusive thoughts. We may not have control over what springs into our mind but we do have a choice about whether we continue to engage with it. When an unwanted thought comes to mind we can choose to let it go and focus our mind elsewhere. This may prove difficult at first but with repeated practice, we can learn to have greater control over where we focus our minds.

There are two practices that my clients find extremely useful when trying to manage intrusive thoughts. The first in mindfulness meditation and the second is gratitude. Meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice aimed at helping us have greater control over our ever wandering minds. A simple meditation practice involves sitting quietly for about 10 minutes experiencing the flow of our breath. Each time our mind wanders, as it inevitably does, we simply and gently bring our attention back to our experience of the breath. At first, our mind may wander every few seconds but very quickly we can learn to become still and focused. Meditation is great for helping our minds have greater clarity and stillness it also helps to develop our sense of empathy and wellbeing.

I think the technique my clients find most effective is a daily gratitude practice. Spending a few minutes each evening to focus on the things in your life you are grateful for can be a wonderful antidote to negative thinking. Over time you start to train your mind to look for the positive things in your life. Just like clicking on a link in Amazon, the more you think positive thoughts the more likely your mind is to dwell on them.

Whilst we may not be able to control every thought that pops into our head we do have control over how we react to it. We do not have to attach our thoughts or let them define who we believe we are. By practicing mindfulness, gratitude or other similar tools we are able to bring about greater mental focus, clarity, and peace of mind.

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I bought my grandson some Harry Potter frog chocolate last Christmas from the online retailer, Amazon (and yes other online retailers do exist).

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