Thoughts are NOT always facts, even though we so often believe they are. And while thoughts can, at times, be fascinating, entertaining, funny, soothing and perhaps at times, serene or erotic, they can also be turbulent, scattered, worrisome, scary, and/or distorted.
The good news is: there are many, many tools we can use to help us manage our mind and thought patterns. You just may not have been introduced to these tools… yet!
Here are a few facts about thoughts:
- We have, on average, 65,000 thoughts per 24 hour day (crazy as that may seem, it’s true!).
- Thoughts take their form in three tenses: the past, the present, and the future.
- Thoughts about the past can cause pain and suffering, and can lead to depression, insomnia, physical health problems, eating disorders, relationship and parenting challenges, etc.
- Thoughts about the future can cause worry, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, physical health problems, eating disorders, relationship and parenting challenges, etc.
- Thoughts about the present can provide us with calm, peace, serenity, improved focus and concentration, improved sleep and eating, health and wellness, balance, healthy relationships, etc.
Like the motherboard of a computer, which controls the programs we access and operate, our brain controls our thoughts, emotions, physiology and actions. If the motherboard develops a virus, the computer doesn’t work well, or not at all. Similarly, if our brain is not healthy and strong, it, too, can cause moments, days, months and at times, years, of pain and suffering.
So, what does this all mean? How can we find ways to move beyond that pain and suffering? Let’s consider cognitive behavioural thought (based on CBT) and mindful practice and living.
Let’s imagine we’re in the middle of the ocean, hoping to be rescued. Our thoughts may include: “I’ll never be rescued”, “I’m going to drown”, “I’m never going to see my family again”, “That boat should have been safer”, etc. These negative thoughts about the past and future is what we know as “all or nothing thinking”, “jumping to conclusions”,“catastrophizing”, etc. With no control over what has occurred, or what may be, we begin to feel helpless, fearful, sad, etc, and as a result, our heart rate beats faster, we have a hard time catching our breath, our vision may go blurry, etc. After we search for some respite and weigh the evidence that supports our core beliefs, and can’t find any evidence to support our negative thoughts, our new positive thoughts becomes grounded in hope, “I’m a strong swimmer, and I can survive until I’m rescued”, “boats pass by here all the time”, “if I practice presence, I will become calmer”. And as we change negative thoughts into positive thoughts, and as we begin to allow ourselves to float and practice restorative breath, we begin to feel better.
Learning to manage our thoughts brings us freedom from pain and suffering. When we are able to change negative thoughts to positive thoughts, we free ourselves from the core beliefs and our rules for living that do not serve us well. Core beliefs are rooted in our childhood. They come from messages from parents, peers, educators, the media, etc that helped to shape our beliefs. Consider your own core messages, both positive and negative and how they have shaped your present beliefs and rules for living.
My favourite tool for working with thoughts is turning to Mindfulness practices. Mindfulness means “moment to moment, non judgmental awareness that we do on purpose” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). When we are feeling emotionally and/or physically challenged, when we are able to notice those negative thoughts and the challenging sensations that arise, instead of deconstructing those thoughts, as we did in the ocean example, we move away from past and future thinking and lean into presence. We can do this through meditation, which includes lying down, seated, walking, eating and moving meditation practices.
We can also anchor our awareness through breath practice, which is available to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and goes everywhere we go. Each mindful breath cycle allows us freedom to breathe in something we need, such as hope, strength, self compassion, etc, and breathe out something we want to let go of, such as hopelessness, despair, or fear.
Practice tip: Try a few breath cycles… close your eyes, place your hands on your heart and/or belly, and as you breathe in, inhale something you need to help you feel better, then as you breathe out, exhale something you need to let go of… something that is not serving you well. Then repeat up to ten times. Before you open your eyes, check in with your body’s sensations. Any better?
There are many books, apps and resources available to us online to help you learn more about how to work with your thoughts. And with all that’s going on in the world right now, so many of these resources are accessible online. Here are a few of my favourites:
- “Mind Over Mood”, Padesky and Greenberger (introduction workbook to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
- “Full Catastrophe Living”
- “Wherever You Go There You Are”, Jon Kabat-Zinn (introduction to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
- “MindfulWay through Depression”
- “MindfulWay through Anxiety”, Zindel Segal
- “Mindful Parenting”, Daniel Siegel
- “Mindful Eating”, Susan Albers
- “Gifts of Imperfection”
- “Daring Greatly”, Brene Brown
- Thought Diary (CBT)
- CALM, Headspace, Stop, Breathe and Think, Breathe (Mindful Meditation)
Always remember, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go, there you are”. We are NOT our thoughts, and as we come to learn to manage them, we can discover more balance in our lives… moment, by moment, by moment.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay strong.