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Handling Every-day Stresses

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Handling Every-day Stresses

by Michael Hyder, LPC

Learn more about Michael and his practice...

I wanted to share a really helpful metaphor that I use from Dr. Russ Harris’ book ACT Made Simple. The metaphor is used when I am attempting to explain how struggling and resisting one’s emotion can cause a whole lot of unhelpful suffering. Often times after I have read it my clients have experienced a bit of an ‘aha’ moment. The extended metaphor is called The Struggle Switch and is outlined below:

“Imagine that at the back of your mind is a “struggle switch.” When it’s switched on, it means you’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes your way. Whatever discomfort shows up, you’ll do your best to get rid of it or avoid it.

Suppose what shows up is anxiety. If your struggle switch is on, then you absolutely have to get rid of that feeling! You say, “Oh no! Here’s this horrible feeling again. Why does it keep coming back? How do I get rid of it?” So now you have anxiety about your anxiety. In other words, your anxiety just got worse. Then your mind says, “Oh no, it’s getting worse! Why does it do that?!” Now you’re even more anxious. You also might get angry about your anxiety. “It’s not fair, why does this keep happening!?” Or, you might get depressed about your anxiety. “Not again, why do I always feel like this?” And all these secondary emotions are useless, unpleasant, unhelpful, and a drain on your energy. And then – guess what, you get anxious and depressed about that! Spot the vicious cycle?

But now suppose your struggle switch is off. In that case, whatever feeling shows up, no matter how unpleasant, you don’t struggle with it. So anxiety shows up, but this time you say, “Ok, this is what anxiety feels like. Here’s a knot in my stomach. Here’s tightness in my chest. Here’s sweaty palms or shaky legs. Here’s my mind telling me a bunch of stories.” And it’s not that you like it or want it. It’s still unpleasant. But you’re not going to waste your time and energy struggling with it. Instead you can take that energy and put it into something that you can control, that’s meaningful and life enhancing.

So with the struggle switch off, your anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. But with the switch on, it’s like an emotional amplifier – you will be angry about your anger, anxious about your anxiety, etc.”

This metaphor usually leads to further discussion and skill work: helping clients learn to be in tune with their emotions in the moment, without fighting with them.  We begin to find that they are just that: unpleasant feelings that they can observe, accept, and allow to move through them like a wave.  The focus can then turn to taking action and doing what works and what matters in their life.