Our minds are powerful and constantly thinking. We think about the past and future every day, we ruminate about things that happened and worry about things that haven’t happened yet. That’s part of our mind’s job and it does that to protect us or get us motivated. For instance, when our minds worry about the future it can activate us to plan but too much worrying can lead to anxiety and too much thinking about the past can lead to depression. When our minds focus on a future that hasn’t arrived yet or a past we can’t change, we lose touch with the present, we lose touch which what’s truly and immediately before us.
But we can learn to redirect our mind back to where it needs to be or away from distress. Think of it as you being in the driver seat of a car, the wheel being your mind and your hands on the wheel guiding your vehicle where it needs to be.
We think approximately between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day, and most thoughts are repetitive. Imagine if most thoughts are worry thoughts or dwelling about unpleasant things from the past, that could represent a lot of suffering.
Part of the secret of redirecting our mind where it needs to go is not engaging on every single thought our mind tells us or in other words we don’t have to believe them, talk back to them or stay with them or we can also reframe them or look at the evidence whether something is true. For example, if your mind tells you, “I am stupid,” after making a mistake, that doesn’t necessarily represent the truth. We can observe the thought and feeling associated with it, remind yourself of all the things you do right, your skills and talents and you can even create an alternative thought like “Making a mistake doesn’t make me stupid. There have been many other times I have done things right.”
There is a time and place for everything and most of the time our constant thinking and engaging in that thinking gets in the way of being present, focusing at work or home, working on something we need to work on and it impacts how we feel.
Have you ever had a thought that made you feel sad, angry, frustrated and act a certain way? That’s because there is a direct connection on our thoughts impacting our emotions and behaviors. If you entertain thoughts like “I can’t believe I said that, I sounded so dumb,” chances are you may feel bad about yourself, you may feel disappointment or frustration (feeling) which may make you shut down or withdrawn (behavior) in the future when you have an opportunity to speak up.
Using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, we teach our clients to reframe thoughts, test the evidence of whether thoughts are true, and observe, and let go of some thoughts. Here a few tips using mindfulness and CBT:
- Observe your thoughts, watch them come and go without judgement. Think of what happens in your mind as a movie playing. The thoughts about the past represent the rewind button, the thoughts about the future are the forward button. You are the observer, the movie watcher and your thoughts are the movie playing. You don’t have to be in the movie, you watch it play and hit pause whenever you need to.
- Label what you observe in your mind. For instance, if you notice you are worrying, simply note that by saying “worries.” If you are planning, simply note they by saying “planning.” If you notice thoughts from the past, you can say “past.” By doing so, you are acknowledging your thought and not negating it. After you label what’s happening in your mind, come back to a neutral point like your breathing (take a deep breath or a few breaths) or observe something around you.
- Test the evidence whether something is true or not. You can simply observe a thought and ask yourself questions like: what evidence or proof do I have that this is true? what proof do I have that this is not true? (look for examples that demonstrate the opposite. For instance, if you have a thought such as: “I am going to fail if I try,” look for examples of times when you have tried things and you have succeeded.
- Come up with an alternative thought. Using the example above, you can come up with an alternative thought that provided possibility and hope like: “I am going to try and I will do the best that I can. If I fail, I will learn from that experience.” There is no one right way of reframing a thought, but the task is to come up with an alternative thought that feels more positive than the existing one, one that is more factual and answers the: what’s the worse that can happen question if what I fear becomes true.
- Schedule worry or thinking time. This is one of our favorites. Imagine if you entertain every single thought that is on your mind all the time, you couldn’t possibly get things accomplished during the day because you would be overcome with emotions like sadness if you are thinking about something from the past or fear if you are thinking about the future. When you have too much thinking happening in times that are not appropriate to entertain your thoughts like at work, when you are spending quality time with family or friends, at school, you can decide to take a pause from that thinking until you have time to “be with it.” Start off by designating a worry or thinking time and next time you notice too much thinking, particularly if it is distressful, simply acknowledge you are thinking and tell your mind, “it is not time to worry yet, I will sit with my worries at x time,” and repeat it over as many times as you need. When you designate worry or thinking time, make sure it is limited, for example 30 minutes or 1 hour and not an entire afternoon or evening.
Here is one example on how this may work. Not to long ago, I drove my car to work and when I took it to the parking lot, the parking lot attendant noticed I had a flat tire. He pointed out that I needed to fix that tire right away. I had 10 minutes to get to work after parking it to see my first client, there was no way I could get the flat tire fixed before seeing my first client. That day I was booked with clients from beginning of the day to end, and only had a few breaks in between (not enough time to fix tire in between breaks), so I decided to park the car and deal with it later. The tire was not an emergency in my eyes at that moment. As I was meeting with clients, thoughts about my tire started to pop up. They sounded like this: “you have a flat tire you need to fix,” and these thoughts became recurrent. In one occasion, I started to entertain that thought and talk to it. That sounded like this “oh my, I have a flat tire, when I get out of work is going to take me a long time to get home.” When I started to entertain that thought, I noticed that my attention immediately shifted from what the client was telling me to that thought. In my line of work, one of the most important tasks is to be present. The moment my attention shifts, I can no longer be there with my client. When I noticed these thoughts continued to emerge, I simply told that thought “there is nothing I can do right now, I will worry about this when I get out of work.” I was able to get through the day and maintain my presence and focus on what my clients were telling with this simple way of talking back to my thought like I did and scheduling worry time.
This blog post is part of a series on thoughts, feelings and behaviors and tips to manage them. Share your thoughts, ideas and what works for you on social media using #mindpowerseries.