Paradoxical Intention: How It Works

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated December 20, 2018

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault


There are a lot of people that suffer from fear, anxiety, and phobias in the world. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that there are over 40 million Americans that suffer from anxiety disorders each year. There are many treatment options available to fight these disorders. But, what if eliminating your fear and anxiety was as simple as facing it head on? What if the best way to get rid of it was to experience more of it? Sounds a little backward, right? Well, that is exactly what Paradoxical Intention therapy is, and many people are confronting their anxiety disorder with it.

What Is Paradoxical Intention?

To understand Paradoxical Intention let's break down the two words. A paradox is a contradictory statement. When most people hear the word "paradox," they think of a silly contradictory thing, like jumbo shrimp. The two words shouldn't make any sense together, but they do. However, it can apply to more than just things that make you smile or laugh.

A paradox can be anything that contradicts and goes against what popular opinion believes, even though it is true. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "intention" means, "a determination to act in a certain way." Therefore, Paradoxical Intention is planned determination to act a certain way that seems to contradict what you should be doing.

If someone has a fear or phobia instead of avoiding the thing that they are afraid of they face it head-on. Instead of experiencing less of it they purposefully choose to expose themselves to it. You are doing the opposite of what feels normal by doing the opposite of it.

The History Of Paradoxical Intention

Psychologist Viktor Frankl developed the treatment. He was a survivor of World War II and the Holocaust. Because of his personal experiences in concentration camps during the war, Frankl was able to make many observations about how our human nature reacts when put into dire situations with extreme conditions. From these experiences, he developed several therapy methods including Paradoxical Intention.


Why Does Paradoxical Intention Work?

The mind often does the opposite of what we want it to do. When you actively try to suppress a thought or worry it often makes it worse. For example, if someone tells you not to think about a black dog with purple spots, it's almost not impossible to think of that very thing. The more you try to resist it the more frustrating it can become. The longer you resist the thing you are afraid of, the bigger the fear will grow. But, it's our natural response to avoid the things that we are afraid of.

For example, think about someone that has a fear of failure. The person naturally avoids putting themselves into situations where they might fail. They refuse to try new things because they don't want to chance that they might fail at it. The longer that they live like this, the more the fear develops. It becomes harder and harder to think about every trying something new that they could fail at. When this person goes through paradoxical intention, they begin continually putting themselves in trying and new situations where they might fail. They continue to do this until it becomes more natural and the fear is no longer present.

By continuing to face the thing that causes you anxiety, you change your focus on the situation. Instead of avoiding something because you don't want to do it, you change your mind to thinking that you are going to do it, or even that you must do it. You become intentional about facing the things that cause you fear, anxiety, and worry.

Use For Insomnia

There are mixed opinions on the use of Paradoxical Intention to treat insomnia. Some studies have found the treatment to be effective in helping patients to gain control over their ability to sleep, by controlling their ability not to sleep. When someone constantly struggles with insomnia, they begin to build up to worry about the issue. The harder they try to fall asleep the harder it is for them to fall asleep. They spend times worrying about the lack of sleep that they are getting and thinking about how long it will take them to fall asleep once they start trying.


To combat the worry and anxiety that is flooding their brain, Paradoxical Intention tells the person to strive to stay awake as long as they can. Sleep is an involuntary function that we do not have full control over. However, we can make a bigger and voluntary effort to stay awake as long as we can. When a person focuses on this instead of trying to fall asleep the anxiety of insomnia begins to vanish. Therefore, the person can eventually fall asleep.

To put this treatment to use you simply turn the lights off and lay in your bed. You focus on keeping your eyes open as long as you can. If you feel sleep overtaking you do not stir to try to fight it, simply let sleep come. Remind yourself that staying awake until the last possible second is the goal, so you do not need to check the time or worry about how long you are awake.

Other Uses Of Paradoxical Intention

Let's look at a common problem that many people experience but don't talk about-shy bladder. Most people that suffer from shy bladder have tried countless times to get themselves to be able to go. They try to convince themselves to relax, they think of water all kinds of tricks, but many times they don't work. But, if you are practicing Paradoxical Intentional, then you do the opposite. Instead of trying to convince yourself to go to the bathroom you try to see how long you can last without having to use the restroom. You try to hold it. When you do this, you subconsciously alleviate the anxiety that surrounds the problem. This helps you to overcome the issue and be able to go to the bathroom.

How To Use Paradoxical Intention In Your Life

If you have been suffering from fear and anxiety in your life, it might be time to try a little paradoxical intention. Here's what you need to do.

  1. Identify the thing that causes your fear and anxiety.
  2. Look for ways to make it bigger than it is. For example, if you have a fear of failing then start looking to try things that you don't know how to do. Set yourself up to do something that you will most likely fail at.
  3. Start putting yourself in situations where you are going to fail.
  4. Continue to do this until the idea of failing is no longer something that causes you extreme dread and fear.


As you can see this can be applied to many different situations, it does not need to be only applied to large things. It also isn't a form of treatment that only people with extreme mental health challenges can benefit from. Paradoxical Intention can be used to address many phobias, fears, and anxieties small or large.

The main thing to remember is that you are going to embrace the thing you usually are trying not to do. You are changing the way that you are thinking about the problem. By doing this, it takes your mind off the thing that you have anxiety about, which in turns allows you to subconsciously start achieving the original thing that you set out to do.

Do You Need Help?

This is a strange idea and one that many people struggle with implementing on their own. However, if you meet with a therapist that assigns you the homework of activities in line with the Paradoxical Intention, it can be easier to follow through with. A licensed therapist can help you identify the behaviors, fears, and anxieties you have that this treatment could be effective in treating. They can also help you along the way by encouraging you in the activities you are doing and helping you track if progress is being made.


When developing and using Paradoxical Intention, Frankl noticed a cycle. It went something like this: people had something they were afraid of. This caused them to be afraid. So, the person tries to avoid the thing they are afraid of. Then, they develop a fear of the fear that they have. Then the fear just continues to grow, and they have anxiety over being fearful of the thing. It sounds a little crazy, but every person will develop this in one way or another throughout life. If you catch it earlier, it is easier to treat.

But, if you are struggling with handling these anxieties and fears on your own then don't hesitate to get professional help. BetterHelp offers online therapy. There is a simple form to get started by being matched up with a therapist that is the best fit for you.

Don't continue to settle for how you live life. Do not continue to give into your fears. Instead, use paradoxical intention for a different and unique way to resolve your fears.

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