Sometimes we get stuck going in circles with an emotion, a memory, or a problem. But there are ways we can escape that cycle. In this post we’ll explore eight ways to overcome mental or emotional blocks.
How to Move Past Mental Blocks
I recently was asked this great question:
“I think about and talk about my emotions all the time, but I still feel terrible. I still feel upset about the past. No matter how much I try to work through my emotions or my memories, they just keep coming back. I can’t let go. “
People say that time heals, but if you ask someone with severe anxiety or PTSD, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t. Or if you ask someone with depression if thinking about their emotions or their thoughts helps, they’ll often say that it just makes them feel worse.
Here’s the thing: usually what’s causing our mental block is that instead of processing through an emotion and coming out the other side, something that we are doing is leaving us cycling, going in a circle, and constantly getting stuck.
“One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” Various attributions
So in this post, we’ll talk about what causes these mental and emotional blocks, as well as some strategies you can use to help you break through them.
The Problem With Just Thinking
Just doing more thinking doesn’t help us resolve a problem — it tends to reinforce the problem. If this doesn’t make sense, let me give you a couple of examples.
Anxiety. With anxiety, it’s common to avoid the things that make you anxious. So if you’re afraid of dogs and you avoid them, that sends a message to your brain that the only reason you survived is because you avoid dogs, which your brain takes as a signal to make your anxiety worse around dogs.
The more you avoid something, the more anxiety you feel. Avoidance keeps you stuck in the fear response.
Depression. Let’s do an example with depression. Let’s say that every time you make a mistake, you call yourself a failure. This label you give yourself prevents you from being able to learn from the experience and grow through it. It leaves you feeling bad in most situations, and when you feel bad, you call yourself a failure, perpetuating that cycle. The more you respond by calling yourself a failure, the more depressed you feel, which leads you to call yourself a failure.
How we respond to situations determines whether we move forward or repeat them. Frank Sonneberg said “Lessons in life will be repeated until they are learned.” Let me give you another example.
PTSD. With PTSD, when painful thoughts come up from your past, you might get so overwhelmed by them that you panic. Then you do everything in your power to not think about them again, leaving you trapped in a cycle of avoidance. But avoidance is directly linked to PTSD and panic attacks. The more you avoid, the more you panic. And the more you panic, the more you avoid.
These are just a few examples of how the more you do something, the worse you feel. Therapy would gently help the anxious person face their fears. It would help the depressed person change their negative self-talk. And it would help the person with PTSD gradually face their trauma with a calm body.
We have to examine our patterns that leave us feeling stuck in our emotions. So let’s talk about eight reasons why people get mental or emotional blocks and are unable to process through some emotions or memories. And, of course, we’ll discuss what you can do about it.
Common Mental Blocks
Okay, so let’s jump in. Here’s the first mental block that seems really obvious, but for most people they don’t even realize it’s affecting them.
Mental Block #1
You don’t know what you’re feeling. Counteract this problem with skill #1: Name It to Tame It.
Mental Block #2
You don’t know why you’re feeling it. Explore skill #7: Primary/Secondary Emotions. Write about it.
Mental Block #3
You’re not allowing yourself to feel your emotions. You judge it, you avoid it, you’re scared of it. You have rules about what you are and aren’t allowed to feel. For example: I’ll think about this unless it makes me sad or anxious. Or: if it gets too uncomfortable, then I’ll stop. If you’re not allowing yourself to feel your emotions, then you can’t process through them or resolve them.
If we go back to the fish processing plant analogy from section one, this is like if you’re at your factory and you get a shipment of fish that you didn’t want. Avoidance would just be like “I shouldn’t have to deal with this” or “I don’t want to deal with this” and just leaving those trucks in your delivery area. You can’t magic them away.
In the future, you can work with the fishing boats to not bring you that kind of fish. You could arrange with your suppliers to make sure that you don’t get that fish truck in the future. Or you could prepare ahead to get the right machines or training to deal with that kind of fish. But right now, the fish are in your driveway, and you’ve got to figure out what to do with them.
Send them to the cat food factory, take them to the dump, turn them into fertilizer, whatever it takes, but you can’t just try not to think about them because that will stop your factory from being able to work.
So the skill to help you through this is willingness, allowing yourself to face your emotions and feel what you’re feeling, even if it’s uncomfortable. Remember, emotions, even though they can be uncomfortable, can’t hurt you, but trying to avoid them can (see skill #6).
Mental Block #4
Here’s a big one. It’s common, but it’s kinda complicated. When you have an intense emotion, you get stuck in a freaked out body response that shuts off your thinking and your ability to process and leaves you stuck in nervous system hyperarousal.
Your brain has to get through like six steps to resolve an issue (notice, name, pause, explore, choose, act) to allow your body to return to calm. Your brain is constantly trying to work through these emotional problems, and that’s why they keep popping up over and over. And it’s going to repeat that cycle over and over until it comes to a solution or conclusion.
This process doesn’t just happen because of big traumatic events or decisions — it can happen with common, everyday decisions too.
So, for example, I was trying to replace our flooring in our house. We had a 24-year old carpet and it really needed to go. So I started exploring all the options, and pretty soon I got kinda overwhelmed with all the choices: the color styles, the types of flooring, the interior design. And then I started researching and going to all the flooring stores and thinking about it all the time. My husband got sick of hearing me talk about it.
And finally when I made a decision — I still didn’t have that flooring installed, but as soon as I had made my decision, my brain stopped obsessing about it. And that’s because I went through that process of notice, name, pause, explore, choose, and then act.
But if you get too stressed out, then it shuts off the thinking part of the brain, and the body goes into FFF.
This happens a lot with couples who argue, and when they get really upset, they just stop talking and let it blow over. But they never come back and resolve a problem. They always leave the argument at the exact same place. The problem never gets resolved because they don’t have the skills to work through the impasse, and the resentment just builds and builds.
Someone who has experienced trauma can get stuck in avoidance because every time they face their trauma it’s so overwhelming that it blows their mental circuits and leaves them stuck in FFF response. They could think about the trauma a hundred times, but if it gets them into hyperarousal over and over, then they’re not going to heal.
So the solution for this brain shutdown mode is to learn to soothe your body as you process through intense memories or situations in small chunks. The entire section previous to this one was on these skills to regulate your nervous system. When you have a calm body, you can have a calm mind and you can get through your block.
Mental Block #5
Here’s another common thing that causes emotional blocks for many people. It’s having beliefs that stop you from resolving a problem. These are known as core beliefs.
Core beliefs are more of an involuntary emotional knee jerk reaction to a situation or event rather than something that is intentionally thought out in your mind. They are like a label you subconsciously put on yourself, others, or situations that keep you from seeing the truth.
And this reaction or labeling happens so naturally that you don’t even question it. But it gets in the way of you being able to see things for what they really are, and it interferes with your ability to process emotions.
A really common core belief is “I’m a bad person. I’m not good enough.” Or “I’m helpless.” These aren’t true statements, but if you have a core belief of inadequacy or worthlessness then these statements may effortlessly appear in your thoughts. And you won’t challenge them because they feel true even though in actuality they are not.
So in the next post, which will be on cognitive distortions, I talk about a client who had a core belief that said “The reason I’m not married is because I’m a bad person.” And we’ll discuss the concept of core beliefs a bit more in upcoming sections.
Another example of this is believing that “If I have depression or another mental illness, then I’m broken or defective, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Thinking this way also stops us from being able to process emotions and solve problems.
I once heard the story of a woman who went into therapy with the core belief that everything was her fault. When she was four years old she was supposed to be watching her two-year-old sister while her mom was in the house on the phone. 50 years later, she still believed that it was her fault that her little sister got hit by a car, and that colored everything she did.
When her therapist gently questioned her “Do you know a four-year-old? Is she responsible enough to babysit a two-year-old near the road?” this woman was able to realize that it wasn’t her fault. She was just a little kid, a toddler herself. And when she let go of that guilt, she was able to improve her relationships, her job, her entire life.
This is really too big of a topic for this post, but basically, you can learn to examine your core beliefs. These directly contribute to your emotional response, but they are deeper than thoughts or emotions. Essentially, they are your underlying paradigm of the world.
Mental Block #6
You are unclear about whether it’s your responsibility or not. You’re stuck in blame mode or victim mode. That leaves you with a constant need to dredge that blame up again to make yourself feel vindicated, or you are acting helpless when you really need to solve something, take some action. Get clear on your responsibility; do the locus of control activity.
Mental Block #7
Processing difficulties. ADD or a verbal processing disorder can make it really hard to work through emotions. Sometimes one part of the brain is moving a lot faster than the other, and this can make it hard to go through the six steps of emotion processing.
In this case, we can really supplement that work by slowing down the process through writing, talking out problems with another person, or breaking the problem down into small, manageable chunks.
In therapy I’m almost always using a whiteboard or piece of paper to diagram problems, separate them into parts, and explore solutions. Otherwise they can just get so complicated or overwhelming that we go into shutdown mode.
Mental Block #8
Other brain differences. So for example, with OCD, it’s like your brain doesn’t quite reach that stage of resolution. So someone with a neurotypical brain who feels like their hands are dirty, after they wash their hands they feel that resolution of the problem. They feel like they fixed it, and therefore they feel a sense of relief.
Someone with a more OCD-type brain would wash their hands and feel a brief relief, but then that thought would pop up again and they would feel just as worried as if they had never washed their hands in the first place. So some brain types have a harder time staying in that resolved state.
With these brain differences, you need to learn strategies that work specifically for your brain. And there are a lot. Exposure response prevention is one of these skills, as is cognitive defusion, which we’ll talk about later in this course.
Helpful Things to Try
When you feel stuck, get a third party involved. When we’re stuck, we are usually blind to what is actually causing the problem. I’ve heard it said “You’re never upset for the reason you think you are.”
Getting a wise, reasonable person to share their perspective on the issue can help you see things more clearly and consider alternatives that can get you unstuck. So, of course, I encourage you to talk with a therapist, a close friend, or a loving family member to see if they have some ideas that may help you.
The other thing that’s going to be helpful is learning to check yourself for thinking errors. Learn to examine your negative thinking patterns and replace them with more helpful, more functional ways to think. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in the next section, Cognitive Distortions. Hope to see you there!
This is part of a 30-section course, How to Process Emotions. Check out the full course with added bonuses below.