The Beach Ball Analogy – Why Suppression of Anxiety Back Fires

In one of the sessions I had with a client recently, we discussed a lot on paradoxical approaches to dealing with anxiety. I brought up the analogy of a beach ball. Basically, you think of yourself holding a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool, you know how much of a struggle this is, right? The longer we hold it underwater, the more tired we become. Before long it comes shooting up through the surface of the water and if you’re unlucky, it smacks you right in the face. This is because the pressure you’re using to keep the ball underwater is cancelled out by an upwards force, this is what causes the ball to the splash out through the water.

Looking back now, I used to have this same approach towards anxiety. I would spend so much of my waking day trying to get rid of any thought or uncomfortable sensation that might arise. Understandably so, the thought of spending all day in a constant state of fear and anxiety troubled me immensely.

However, what if this constant aim to force myself to feel well, to escape and suppress my anxiety was exactly the same as holding down a beach ball below the surface of water? What if it was only a matter of time before this beach ball of anxiety rocketed it’s way through the water and into my face? Well, truth be told, this is exactly what I was experiencing on a daily basis. The same force I used to push anxiety away came back at me like a raging bull.

This is something valuable I saw on a website:
Imagine that you’re standing in a swimming pool. With one hand, you’re holding a beach ball underwater. This beach ball represents something that you’ve been actively avoiding or repressing, like an unwanted emotion (e.g., shame, fear, or anger), life experience (e.g., criticism or social rejection), etc. As long as you can hold the ball underwater, the surface of the pool is smooth and serene. Life is good. But, your actions in the pool are limited. You can’t move around easily. You only have one arm free. And, you can’t hold the ball underwater forever. At some point, you lose your grip and the ball comes rocketing to the surface, making a big wet mess. When this happens, you frantically try to shove the ball underwater again as soon as possible. This will make the waves subside in the short-term. It also ensures that you’ll continue to be stuck in the same place.

So, what do you need to do in order to have more fun in the pool?
Ultimately, you need to learn how to let the beach ball rise to the surface of the water. When you release your hold on the ball, it is free to float away. It doesn’t disappear or leave the pool entirely, but now becomes susceptible to passing winds. Sometimes, it might be right on front of you, and very far away at other times. Accepting its inevitable presence in the pool, you can start to move around freely. You can decide where you want to go.

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results.

No wonder I felt so exhausted and drained. I was trying to overcome anxiety in a way that kept the anxiety in place. Whoaa! The attempt to stop feeling anxious was completely futile, it’s such a waste of time and energy. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess it was because I didn’t have the knowledge I have now on how to approach anxiety as I did back then. I wish I knew this at the time. Of course, with a rational mind, I probably did know this but as you well know, our rational part of our brain gets drowned out by the irrational part. So, it was very rare for me to have access to my rational mind.

The message for you today through this article is to remind yourself that you shouldn’t try to block out any negative, anxious thought or sensation because the truth is, we can’t, no matter how hard we try. You don’t have to maintain a state where you are free from anxious thoughts and feelings. In fact, I want you to give yourself permission to experience any thought that pops up into your mind without needing to get rid of it. Without seeing it as bad or something that should not be allowed. Again, when we fall into this mentality, we are pouring more fuel onto an already blazing fire.

Trying to police our thoughts, determining what thought is good and what thought is bad, is just keeping us stuck in this heavy, dense and resistive state which can only encourage more anxiety.

Another thing I mentioned to my client was that she should just give up trying to control her thoughts and feelings because it cannot be done. I know this sounds defeatist but it really isn’t. If looked at in the “right” way, it can be truly liberating. This is because once we understand that we don’t have conscious control over our thoughts and emotions, and that we never did, we can begin to stop wasting so much of our energy and time trying to stop something that cannot be stopped. Trying to stop thoughts from arising is like trying to stop breathing.

The more we aim to feel better, the more we are trying to swim upstream against the flow of the current like a struggling duck. The idea is to free yourself from any expectation of how you should be feeling and what you should be thinking. Once you can live in this state, you are giving all of our thoughts and sensations freedom to be. When you give something freedom to be, you will experience a sense of freedom in return.

Crucial reminder: Trying to control our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations is rather futile because they happen outside of our conscious control. No matter how hard we try to manipulate our inner state, the thoughts and sensations are going to be there regardless. Let them be there, don’t bother trying to change, stop or argue with them.

Keep practicing this approach and see what happens. Feel free to let me know how things go.

Until next time

Lawrence Gregory

Hi I'm Lawrence. I write about what has helped me heal/recover from high anxiety and panic attacks. Everything I share here comes from personal experience and what I've learnt from others. I write with honesty and with readers in mind, so you'll never see me share something I haven't had any experience with myself.

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