Managing Negative Thoughts
It’s funny the things we remember from our early years at school.
I remember the fairy floss we used to have at our school fete each year and the machine that would still be there on the Monday. Children would stick their fingers into the crevices of the machine seeking out some of the sticky pink remnants of the whipped sugar.
I remember the driver of our school bus, Mr Bibings, and how he took us all on a picnic on his last day before he retired.
And when I was a little older, I remember a science teacher writing the second law of thermodynamics on the blackboard: “The entropy of the universe is increasing”, meaning that disorder and chaos always increases with time. This fascinated me, the idea that if you throw a pack of shuffled cards into the air, the probability of them all falling in the correct order is infinitesimally small.
It’s interesting to think that this law also applies to our own thought processes. When research subjects are told to just relax and let their mind wander, their thoughts tend to spiral down into a chaotic and negative spin, ruminating on things that may no longer be relevant or that they have no control over. This is known as the default mode of the brain.
Most people are totally unaware of the massive amount of unconscious processing that is continuously done by the brain’s default mode network. And because they are unaware, they may feel that they have no control over their negative thoughts and negative emotions. This feeling of not having control over your own thoughts and emotions can lead to heightened states of stress and anxiety.
But the truth is, although we may not have control over which thoughts enter our mind, we do have control over which ones we pay attention to.
When I open my work emails and find a multitude of correspondence I scan over it, delete the junk, then prioritise. I decide which emails can be ignored or postponed and which one need immediate attention.
The same is true for your thoughts. But this takes awareness and training. When we practice mindfulness we observe the workings of the mind with no judgment. We then choose which thoughts can be deleted, which can be addressed later and which need immediate attention.
If you’re troubled by stress and strong negative emotions, try this:
- Name the troubling thought
- Decide if it’s based on fact or fiction (is it just spam?)
- If it’s spam (something past that can’t be changed, or something in the future that may never happen) can you place it on the side, shifting your attention to what is here and now?
- If it’s something that needs attention, does it need that attention now, or can it be de-prioritised
Most troubles can be better dealt with when we’re relaxed. Relaxing the mind removes our blinkers and opens up possibilities that are hard to see when we’re stressed.
- Sit (or stand) noting how your feet connect with the floor. Place your attention there. You may be barefoot or wearing shoes, but notice how your feet feel right now, without analysis, without judgment. Just sense them.
- As thoughts intrude notice these thoughts, naming them if you wish. Notice the physical sensations that arise as a result of these thoughts and how those stress sensations are not present when your attention is completely focused on your feet.
- You can now choose to continue focusing on the thoughts or on your feet. Make the choice to shift your attention back to your feet.
- As your body and mind become more accustomed to letting difficult thoughts go, you will find it easier to relax. As you relax more easily, solutions to your difficulties are more likely to come to you.
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