Paradoxical Intention: How It Works
Updated May 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: 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. To improve this reality, many treatment options have emerged. 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 consider the meaning of both words. A paradox is a contradictory statement. When most people hear the word "paradox," they think of a silly, contradictory thing like a jumbo shrimp or a crash landing. The two words shouldn't make any sense together, but they do. However, the concept of a paradox is about more than making you laugh. A paradox can be anything that is both true and that also contradicts popular belief.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "intention" means "a determination to act in a certain way." When we combine this with the word "paradox," we come to understand that a Paradoxical Intention is a plan to act in a way that seems to contradict what you should be doing. For example, if someone has a fear or phobia, they might face it head on. Instead of avoiding it, they purposefully choose to expose themselves to it. In this article, we'll explore this concept and how it might apply to your life.
The History of Paradoxical Intention
Psychologist Viktor Frankl initially developed Paradoxical Intention as a treatment method. Known for his book Man's Search for Meaning, he survived World War II and the Holocaust. While he was imprisoned in concentration camps during the war, Frankl had the opportunity to make many observations about what happens when people are put into dire situations with extreme conditions. Later, he developed several therapeutic methods based on his observations, including Paradoxical Intention.
While he was refining this treatment, Frankl noticed a cycle. When people became afraid of something, they felt fear and wanted to avoid it. Then, they developed a fear of the fear that they had. The fear just continued to grow, and they had anxiety over being fearful of the thing. It sounds a little crazy, but every person will experience this in one way or another at some point in life. If you catch it earlier, it's easier to treat.
How Does Paradoxical Intention Work? Why?
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 the thought, the more frustrating it becomes. Similarly, the longer you try to avoid the thing you fear, the bigger the fear will grow. Even if we know avoidance increases its power, it's still our natural response to avoid the things we fear.
For example, think about someone who has a fear of failure. This person naturally avoids putting themselves into situations where they might fail. For example, they refuse to try new things because they don't want to take the risk of failing. The longer that they live like this, the more the fear develops and grows until it consumes their life. It becomes harder and harder to think about ever trying something new. If this person went through Paradoxical Intention therapy, they would repeatedly put themselves into situations where they are forced to try new things, even though they might fail. They continue to do this until it becomes so natural that the fear is no longer present.
By continuing to face the things that cause you anxiety, you change your focus. Instead of avoiding something because you don't want to do it, you change your mind, so you think by default that you are going to do it or even that you must do it. As such, 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 to not sleep. When someone constantly struggles with insomnia, they begin to worry about it. The more they focus on sleeping, the harder it is for them to fall asleep. They spend so much time worrying about the lack of sleep and thinking about how long it will take them to fall asleep that they wind up not sleeping at all.
To combat the worry and anxiety flooding their brain, Paradoxical Intention tells the person to strive to stay awake as long as they can. Sleep is an involuntary function, so we can't really control it. However, we can make an effort to stay awake for as long as we can. When a person focuses on staying awake instead of trying to fall asleep, the anxiety of insomnia begins to vanish. Therefore, it's easier for that person to eventually fall asleep.
To put this treatment to use, simply turn the lights off and lay in your bed. Focus on keeping your eyes open as long as you can. If you feel sleep overtaking you, do not stir or try to fight it; simply let sleep come. Remind yourself that staying awake until the last possible second is the goal, so you don't need to check the time or worry about how long you've been awake.
Other Uses of Paradoxical Intention
Paradoxical Intention can help with many troubling issues. For example, some people experience a condition called "shy bladder" (the inability to urinate in public restrooms or anywhere other people are nearby), but few people talk about it. People who suffer from this condition struggle to urinate in certain situations, despite trying as hard as they can. They may try to convince themselves to relax, or they may think of water and try all kinds of tricks, but many times nothing works.
However, if you're practicing Paradoxical Intentional, you would do the opposite. Instead of trying to convince yourself to go to the bathroom, you would 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 surrounding the problem. This helps you to overcome the issue, so you can urinate with less trouble.
How to Use Paradoxical Intention in Your Life
If you suffer from fear and anxiety in your life, it might be time to try a little Paradoxical Intention. Here's what you need to do.
- Identify the thing that causes your fear and anxiety.
- Look for ways to make it bigger than it is. For example, if you have a fear of failing, then consider trying things that you don't know how to do. Set yourself up to do something where you might fail.
- Then start putting yourself in situations where you are going to fail.
- Continue to do this until the idea of failing no longer causes you extreme dread and fear.
As you can see, this concept can be applied to many different situations, not only large fears and anxieties. Furthermore, it's not restricted to people with extreme mental health challenges; anyone can benefit.
The main thing to remember is that you're going to embrace the thing you usually avoid or try not to think about. You're changing the way you think about the problem. When you do this, it takes your mind off the thing that's causing you anxiety, which in turn allows you to more easily do what you really want to do.
By its very nature, paradoxical Intention is a strange idea, and many people struggle to implement it on their own. However, if you work with a therapist, it may be easier to follow through. A licensed therapist can help you identify the behaviors, fears, and anxieties that you can address with this treatment. They can also support you along the way by encouraging you and helping you track your progress.
If you are struggling to handle these fears and anxieties on your own, don't hesitate to get professional help. BetterHelp offers online therapy with over 5,000 licensed therapists. There is a simple form to get started, and BetterHelp will match you up with the therapist who is the best fit for you. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people with similar issues, who have benefitted from online therapy.
"Genna gets down to your core fears and addresses them in an understanding, empathetic manner. She has helped me through a very difficult time and has given very valuable, practical advice time and time again. What I like about Genna is that she participates and helps you think of different solutions."
"In what has been a very difficult time, Joe has been supporting, understanding and challenging me in a deeply beneficial way. He helps me change and heal. I am most grateful for his wisdom, genuine empathy and active approach to me and my current struggle. With his help, I now have hope, new tools, and increasingly the strength needed to resolve inner and outer troubles and be able to restore my life and create a better one."
You don't have to be afraid or give into your fears. Instead, try facing your anxieties head on with Paradoxical Intention. BetterHelp therapists are here to support you every step of the way--take the first step today.