One of the biggest complaints I hear from clients is their inability to control their thoughts. I don’t mean their thoughts are literally under the control of somebody or something else. I mean they have the inability to shut their mind off or prevent themselves from thinking negative thoughts. I think we have all been in this position before. God knows I sat up many nights in graduate school thinking I was about to fail an exam. The problem with not being able to turn our minds off is simple: If we are constantly thinking negative thoughts or negative beliefs, then we will start to live out those ideas in our real life. For instance, if all you thought about was a juicy cheeseburger while you are dieting, then you will be hungry for that cheeseburger all day. You will most likely eat many cheeseburgers and blow your diet. If you ponder continually about the saddest moment in your life, then I bet you would feel sad during this time. If you pictured the happiest day in your life throughout your waking hours, then you will probably feel pretty happy all day long. I think you get the point: What we think about can totally affect our mood. Sometimes, this negative thinking can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you worry about a future event —even if you take actions to prevent bad results —the worrying causes negative consequences to happen.
Why do people have a problem controlling their thoughts? Well, the short answer is we are designed to worry about things. Our brains don’t want anything to happen to us, so it makes sure we identify every threat in our environment with the idea of preventing this from happening. For most people, this adaptive function works really well. But for some of us, our brains are a little too active in certain areas, preventing us from shutting this part of our brain off. Eventually, our brain never wants to shut down and we literally are unable to not worry or think negatively. Don’t lose hope, though! One powerful tool to help wrestle control back from our brain is mindfulness. This cognitive tool helps people become more aware of their thoughts and to learn how to control them. The first basic step to learning mindfulness is to observe your thoughts and the environment around you. Notice your thoughts coming and going like the clouds passing by in the sky. Don’t hold onto your thoughts; just let them pass by you without judgment. Think of your thoughts like a doorman at the club: Identify the people, and let them in without saying too much or letting them for linger for more than a second or two. Think of your mind as Teflon, letting your thoughts slip in and out without getting stuck. Secondly, learn to observe your environment by using your five senses. Our senses let us know what is happening around us. If you take a second to notice what is happening around you with your senses, then it’s impossible to stay stuck in your mind. When clients tell me about being stuck in a moment of panic or severe emotional distress, I often tell them to grab a piece of ice next time. Holding onto an ice cube and focusing on the cold sensation helps them break out of their mind and return to the physical environment. The here and now takes them out of their panic mode. When you are feeling really negative, write your thoughts down. This practice also helps you become more aware of yourself.
Next week, I will explain how to describe your thoughts and how to participate more fully in your life.