You Believe That Every Thought Deserves Power
What would it be like to learn to live with negative thoughts, and at times even accept their presence?
Your thoughts can be important, but any given thought does not tell you much of anything about the person you are or the life you lead. Negative thoughts are sometimes just the equivalent of a party crasher or the drunken loudmouth behind you at the stadium. And anxious thoughts are often unreliable narrators.
You learned how to think about your thoughts in the earliest days of your life, so your relationship with them is quite long-term. And you do want to keep plenty of your thoughts as your companions. You still can. But some thoughts are deserving of nothing more than you swiping them away. These are the thoughts whose profiles should scream “No thanks!” the moment you read them. If you don’t engage with these bad matches, you need not be afraid of them. They will disappear on their own, because you haven’t invited them over.
This new relationship with your thoughts may not come naturally at first, and it takes time and practice — but we must start somewhere. Are you ready to work on accepting the following eight truths? Make note of which are more difficult for you to believe than others.
1 The experience of having a thought — no matter what it is — is always OK. 2 Merely having a thought doesn’t automatically make it true. 3 Thoughts alone are not dangerous. It is how you respond to them that matters. 4 Thoughts tend to be fleeting and pass on their own if you let them. 5 You can train yourself to observe your thoughts gently and curiously, without harsh judgment of yourself for having them. 6 Avoiding or fighting with your negative thoughts will only drain your energy. 7 The more you struggle with your thoughts, the stickier they become. 8 If you can be flexible in your thinking about your thoughts, you will develop the ability to bend your thinking, rather than letting your thoughts break you.
You Pit Your Body Against Your Mind
Your body’s role in your moods doesn’t just come and go. To get real about making positive changes, you must take an honest look at the big picture of your overall day-to-day habits. Good health habits aren’t about worshipping at the altar of kale. Balance is key, not only to keep from denying yourself a treat every now and then, but to keep from overdosing on supposedly “good” stuff as well. Too much spinach can give you kidney stones. Too much sunlight can burn you. Too much exercise can weaken you. The list goes on. The physical habits below have crucial effects on your everyday mood.
Movement: Regular physical exercise has significant antidepressant and anti-anxiety qualities. You don’t have to join a gym to experience its benefits. Even a consistent commitment to walking brings mental and physical boosts.
Sleep: Evolution dictates that lack of sleep can lead to higher levels of anxiety. (It’s your brain’s way of overcompensating for your sluggishness: If you err on the side of viewing everything as a threat, then you’re less likely to be eaten.) On average, American adults get less sleep now than they did a generation ago, and there’s considerable evidence it’s less restful sleep, too, in part because of the stimulation of our phones. Just committing to a bedtime that is fifteen minutes earlier, or not taking your phone into your bedroom, can help improve sleep.
Hydration: Dehydration causes mental fogginess and fatigue, both of which contribute to a plummeting mood. In extreme forms, this can even mimic the effects of a panic attack. With a large percentage of your body — including your brain — made up of water, it’s imperative to keep up a steady intake to counteract what is lost through sweat and urine. Choose a reusable water bottle that you enjoy having around and like looking at, and make a commitment to working your way through it at least twice per day as a start.
Caffeine: Excessive intake of caffeine — understandable in our increasingly sleep-deprived society — packs a double whammy. Not only do caffeine’s stimulant effects in high doses make you more jittery and anxious, but dependence on caffeine can make you feel sluggish and out of sorts when you don’t get enough. To cut down, start slowly, by increasingly mixing in some decaf, substituting a cup of herbal tea, or diminishing the size of your coffee mug.
Sunlight and nature: Open, green spaces have a calming effect on our senses. This is another evolutionary adaptation, since the ability to see the horizon assured us that no predators were creeping up, which allowed us to relax. Daylight helps regulate mood, which is why people who suffer from seasonal depression can be helped by light boxes that replicate the wavelength of sunlight. Bringing nature inside, as with houseplants, can soothe peripheral nervous system agitation as well.
Lack of novelty: Behavioral ruts can lead to mood ruts and a sense of stagnation. While all of us have different thresholds for how much adventure we want in our lives, we each need at least a bit of novelty to keep us stimulated, motivated, and engaged. From trying a new cuisine to painting your entire home, your brain gets a boost when you expand beyond your same old, same old.
You Hold On When You Need to Let Go
In times of significant stress, it’s important to observe the different types of thoughts you’re having, even if they’re all related to the same general worry. You must recognize your own point on the spectrum of helpful versus unhelpful.
Summon the courage to release the thoughts that are redundant, dysfunctional, exaggerated, or unduly catastrophic — even if there is some truth in them. It may help to write down a concrete plan for handling the threat first, and then when you find your negative, anxious thoughts returning, ask yourself these two questions: Is this thought adding insight? Is it helping me clarify the plan? Is this thought increasing my preparedness or strength?
If the answer to both of these is no, then the thought is on the excess worry/not useful end of the spectrum. Treat it just as you would a thought that is inaccurate. It is similarly dysfunctional. Recognize the thought for what it is: an itch that can be breathed through and let go of. (“Hi, Anxious Thought. I see you there. Look, I’m aware that this fear could come true, but I’ve made a plan. I’ll be flexible and adjust as needed. You’re not teaching me anything — you’re a heckler. But I know you’ll pass on your own eventually. I’m going to focus on calming my breath and body for now.”)
Dropping the rope
The better you can identify what you have learned to carry that is no longer serving you day in and day out, the more you free up your mental energy for the person that you truly want to be, here and now.
1 VISUALIZE your body floating, moving forward through life. What weighs it down? What tugs at you in ways that don’t feel good: roles you play that don’t let you be yourself? Regrets you’ve played tug-of-war with for years? Past expectations of yourself, or the expectations of others? Anger that the world isn’t fair? Too much material “stuff”? A suboptimal health habit? A home environment or relationship that doesn’t suit you?
2 IMAGINE the future you want — its shape, color, texture, and size. How will all of those weights be incorporated into it? Which won’t be, and what can you commit to letting go of?
3 ENVISION moving forward toward your chosen future in a mindful way. What you don’t want to let go of, reframe as providing you experience and opportunity for growth. Imagine how these former weights add to your insight, depth, strength, and empathy. Then draw a picture that symbolizes this more complex but more insightful and beautiful future. Commit to being mindful of this picture as you move forward, taking small steps each day. And commit to practicing this future, taking small, mindful steps each day toward living it.
You Run from Discomfort
Try not to blink. For as long as possible. It feels surprisingly uncomfortable after only a few seconds, so you might not last very long with this one. Did you observe yourself not blinking? What did you tell or ask yourself — besides Why are you making me do this? Did you start to feel panicky? Did you challenge yourself to get to a certain amount of time, or to the end of this paragraph, with the idea that you’d be “failing” if you didn’t? Did you immediately give up to find relief, removing yourself from the whole endeavor because it was too hard? Did you find the rest of your body tensing up, and if so, did you address that, or did that just make you more anxious? Did you try desperately to avoid the discomfort and think of something else entirely?
Fill a large mixing bowl (or a small bin) with very cold or even icy water. Commit to keeping your hands in it for thirty seconds and observe yourself tolerating the discomfort. How did you manage it? What did you tell yourself? Did you say you couldn’t handle it? Did you assume it would get worse before it got better? Did you trust yourself to get through it, or did you desperately go someplace else in your mind, trying to remove yourself from the experience? What helped and what didn’t?
The stories you noticed are important. They are likely the same ones you turn to when experiencing distress in daily life — even when you don’t realize you’re telling yourself anything at all. If you want to work further on this, try each exercise again another time.
This time, instead of just observing yourself, actively try to open yourself up to the discomfort. Lean into it. Breathe slowly and mindfully and expansively through it. Own it. Feel it. Experience it. Live it. Let it in. You need not ruminate on it, but don’t run from it — see if you can find that sweet spot.
Does that change the experience? Did you surprise yourself, in that it ended up making it a little less uncomfortable? The research bears this out: Mindfulness interventions increase pain tolerance. By fully facing and acknowledging our experience, we make it less frightening and intense, even though we assume that the opposite would be true.
You can handle this. Empower yourself to expand wide enough and open enough to accommodate the discomfort. Sit with it. Make room for it. You are handling it — and getting stronger at moving through it.