We do lots of thinking every day. Our thoughts come and go constantly from the moment we awake until the moment we fall asleep.
Each of these thoughts has an effect on us. Many thoughts trigger emotional states in us for good or ill
Thoughts like this probably make us feel good:
- "that chocolate cake looks good"
- "I love you too sweetie"
- I think this is a great song
Thoughts like these probably make us feel bad:
- "I am so fat!"
- "She makes me so angry"
- "How could I be so stupid"
Sometimes we are stuck to our ideas of ourselves and what is going on. If these ideas or thoughts are unhelpful this identification with them can be very stressful because we believe that what we are thinking is true. The thought triggers an emotional response whether it is appropriate or not. Our mistake is that we forget that the thought is just a thought about something, not the something itself. It's as if we see a sign saying "Beware of the bull" and become afraid even though the field is quite empty.
A common response to having negative thoughts can be to try to add positive thoughts to the mix as an attempt to counteract or attack those negative thoughts.
This is like putting another gladiator in the ring and expecting the fighting to stop.
What we don't do, or can't do, is step out of the mental arena and let the thoughts go.
Fortunately, there are ways to ease the power of these thoughts by stepping away from them. One way of doing just that can be found in the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. It is one of several, simple techniques that you can use to step out of unhelpful thinking patterns.
The process is simplicity itself. Let's imagine that you have the thought "I'm no good" going around in your head. When you have this thought it provokes a very stressful and debilitating reaction.
First I would ask you to think the thought: "I am no good" then notice what effect that has on you.
Second I would ask you to think the thought: "I am having the thought that I am no good" then notice what happens when you do that.
Third I would ask you to think the thought: "I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am no good", then notice what happens when you do that.
When they do this, people usually report that this technique puts the original thought "at a distance" to them, and that they are less troubled by it.
1. Choose a thought that stresses you.
2. Think that thought and notice what it does to you
3. Then think "I am having the thought … the thought"
4. Then think "I am noticing that I am having the thought … the thought"
This is a really simple process for taking the charge out of negative thinking.
The only challenge is remembering to use it. Here are two approaches that might help:
1. When ever you have an unhelpful thought make a note of it in a journal or piece of paper. At some convenient time of the day, review your notes using the technique for each thought that causes you trouble.
2. When ever you are in difficult or stressful situations ask yourself the question "What am I thinking now?" and make a note of your answers, treating each one with the process.
Image courtesy of Sander van der Wel