Pulling crabgrass directly from the earth runs the risk of...

Pulling crabgrass directly from the earth runs the risk of spreading it further.  Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/mundam

I’ve recently taken up a new hobby: Gardening. Well, not gardening in the traditional sense; I haven’t planted anything. Instead, I have been attempting to eradicate an invading crabgrass from my backyard.

Unlike the traditional blades that grow upward in neat shoots, the crabgrass splayed outward from a convergence point. At the center, the crabgrass has what can be described as a heart, with a purplish hue and deep roots. In my superficial research into the topic — a shallow dig — I learned that to eliminate the crabgrass, one must extract the root in its entirety. Grab it from the heart. However, you run the risk of dispersing thousands of seeds which may take hold of your lawn the following year. 

I first attempted to use a chemical spray. Not only was this ineffective, the crabgrass seemed to grow back stronger than ever. As an alternative, I decided to eliminate each weed by hand. A time-consuming endeavor. And like any good psychologist with time on my hands, I started to think about thoughts. Our thoughts are occasionally like the crabgrass. It is easy for a distressing thought to take hold, plunging its roots deep into the recesses of our brain. The more we try to extract it, the stronger the thought becomes. Its tentacles spread, infecting all  other thoughts and destroying each moment of peace and happiness. 

I have heard many such thoughts in my private practice. “What if a hurricane comes and destroys my house?” “What if everyone I love abandons me and I am alone?”

Hearing these intrusions makes me consider my own greatest fear: “What if my daughter gets hurt?” Now, I am no psychoanalyst, but I do think there is something to be said for getting at the root of the issue. Such thoughts latch on so tightly because they threaten what we love most dearly. What we can’t live without. The fear can become so strong that it develops its own beating heart and takes over all other thoughts in its vicinity. Spraying chemicals won’t work. Even pulling directly from the earth runs the risk of spreading it further. 

Studies show that one of the most effective methods in managing intrusive thoughts is exposure and response prevention. Rather than run from the thoughts, you lean in. Think them even more. Show them you are not afraid and that they do not hold the power. Simultaneously, you let go of the futile rituals you developed to control that which is uncontrollable.

During one afternoon of weeding, I decided to do just that. I leaned in. I stopped my frantic effort to tame the chaos, tossing my gardening tools aside (along with my otherwise cautious parenting approach), and rolled around in the lawn with my 16-month-old. She giggled and threw her arms around me while it began to rain. My husband came home from work to find us soaked and covered in mud. He joined us, holding our little girl and dancing to the country music playlist on my phone. 

Yes, I will continue in my effort to make the lawn beautiful, but what makes it beautiful are the moments spent playing and laughing on it. It is not enough to just eliminate the weeds that take hold of our mind. That will leave you with bare patches of dirt and a particular vulnerability for new fears to take hold. We have to take the empty space and fill it with seeds — things we value — and watch them grow. All the while acknowledging and living with the occasional weed. 

This guest essay reflects the views of psychologist Avital Soep, founder and director of Five Towns Psychology.