By Cailin Crosby
If you’ve ever tried to stop worrying about something, you’ve probably learned the hard way that simply telling your brain to stop worrying isn’t very effective. Our brains are designed to solve problems, which is great when we have a problem to solve – but what about all the other times when we don’t?
Although we can’t control every worry and thought that pops into our heads, we can cultivate a better relationship with them. This means learning how to better cope with negative and distressing thoughts as they arise. And just like when we try to make a change in a real life relationship, it can be helpful if we’re able to take a step back, create some space and gain new perspective on our thoughts.
Keep reading to find out how you can have a more balanced relationship with your thoughts.
Changing our relationship to our thoughts
Research has shown that when our minds wander, the content of these thoughts is largely future-focused. Our minds are frequently making plans and anticipating challenges; it labours away, considering every worst-case or best-case scenario and developing strategies for how to tackle these what-ifs. Another place our minds love to hang out is in the past; ruminating on things we’ve said or done and making assumptions about what other people have thought of our actions.
It might feel as though our brain is sometimes working against us, flooding our minds with all of these hypothetical concerns and judgements and anxieties, but really, it’s just doing what it was designed to do. Our brain is historically wired for survival and that means being sensitive to detecting negative social interactions and helping us to anticipate and plan for future challenges.
Knowing this, how can we start to develop a better relationship with our thoughts and gain perspective? One way is to practice mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is like giving your mind a break from ping-ponging back and forth between the past and the future. It allows you to live in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness helps your mind (and your body!) recognize that you’re right here, safe, in the present moment, and that you are able to choose where you place your focus and how you ascribe meaning to things.
In my first blog on mindfulness, I talked about the idea of noticing our thoughts non-judgmentally. Several other mental health professionals “have noted that the practice of mindfulness may lead to changes in thought patterns, or in attitudes about one’s thoughts … Marsha Linehan (creator of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) notes that observing one’s thoughts and feelings and applying descriptive labels to them encourages the understanding that they are not always accurate reflections of reality. For example, feeling afraid does not necessarily mean that danger is imminent, and thinking ‘I am a failure’ does not make it true”.
Becoming an observer to our thoughts: a 3-step exercise
How can we start to cultivate an awareness of our thoughts, and in doing so, a different attitude towards and relationship with our thoughts? The following are three steps to get you started:
Try to simply notice when a thought or feeling is coming up. Be an observer and note the content of this without judging it. We want to use ‘observer language’ when addressing our thoughts and feelings; that means shifting your internal dialogue away from “I’m angry” to “I notice anger coming up” or from, “I’m so stupid” to “I notice that I’m feeling stupid”.
When we observe our thoughts without engaging with them it allows us to create space so that we can be aware, for instance, of how anger is present and then also how anger goes away again. The actual content of our thoughts is often less meaningful than the ways we let them affect us.
Next, notice what is happening in your body while you’re having the thought. Our bodies can help us recognize where we are experiencing an emotion. When we’re sad, tense, happy, anxious, or joyful, our bodies react – sometimes without us even realizing!
While observing a thought ask yourself - where am I feeling it in my body? Is it tightness in my chest, a racing heart, a pang in my stomach? Do I feel heavy and slow or energized? Being able to identify and connect with our somatic experiences can help cultivate self-awareness and enhance our understanding that we have the ability to develop control over our reactions.
3. Let go
Finally, let go of the need to stop or control the thought or feeling that’s coming up. Don’t struggle against it or ascribe judgment to it, such as ‘I need to stop thinking that’ or ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’. Simply approach your thoughts with curiosity and openness. Notice how your thoughts come and go; notice that they are temporary.
Try practicing these three steps whenever you think of it and notice whether your awareness of and relationship to your thoughts starts to shift. If this feels difficult, that’s okay! It’s a practice, which means it takes some work and intentional effort. And like anything you practice, it will get easier with time.
Do you want to better cope with unpleasant thoughts?
To get you started
Before you begin working through this 3-step exercise, you may want to check out this short (1 minute!) video which offers further insight on changing our perspective and relationship to our thoughts.
While practicing the second step (noticing what’s happening in your body) you may find it helpful to engage in a short body scan exercise. The purpose of a body scan exercise is simply to notice your body - not to feel relaxed necessarily (although that may happen naturally) - but to just be aware of the sensations in your body at the present moment. Here is a 3 minute, guided body scan to help get you started.