Worrying about things is extremely common. Worries are negative thoughts and negative thinking can both be a symptom of or a causal factor in stress and anxiety.
If you have done any mindfulness training you will know that seeing thoughts as just thoughts i.e. a product of your own mind, helps in making your thoughts feel less overwhelming. This is because you begin to realise that they are not controlling you and are thus manageable. Consequently you begin to feel a little more in control over your own mind.
Step 1: Understand thoughts as thoughts…….
So that’s all well and good, but how do I become aware of what I’m thinking and how do I address it?
Step 2: What am I thinking?
Sometimes this is very clear to you; “I am worrying about XYZ”. Sometimes it harder to define because you are not so aware of your thoughts. In mindfulness you become aware of your thoughts and then you let them go in order to focus your attention in the present moment. With positive thinking techniques, for example, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and thought stopping techniques, you focus on the thoughts a little more and explore the reactions that occur in response to them. This is usually best described as a negative thought cycle or spiral (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Cycle of negative thinking:
Can you fit your own cycle of thoughts in this image? You may or may not be fully aware of what you are thinking. Most people need to work on it for a while:
Let’s try an exercise to see if you can become aware of your thinking……
- Just sit comfortably for a moment. Somewhere you will not be disturbed is best.
- Breathe deeply and slowly for a couple of breaths just to slow down and centre yourself.
- Close your eyes and focus on your thoughts; become aware of what you are thinking about. If you are not aware of anything just let your mind drift.
- Repeat the process of paying attention to your thoughts.
Don’t worry if you don’t get any sense from this first time around; you can do this exercise any time, any place anywhere (for those old enough, the ‘Martini principle’). Eventually you will begin to become aware of your thinking. All of us, however self-aware when we start this will probably be surprised by how often we are thinking negatively; it’s usually quite a lot of the time.
Once you are aware of your thoughts, start thinking about how they make you feel, and then how you respond to them.
Because you can do this you can start to recognise trigger points or when you are worrying. Worrying thoughts can cause physical and emotional ill-health.
When you are thinking about a stressful event or worrying about something, those thoughts can cause the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system instigating the stress response.
So your thinking, by provoking worrying thoughts, can initiate and maintain the stress response over long periods. This can lead to chronic stress conditions and also impact on our memory (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Chronic stress cycle
How can you use positive thinking to help?
First step is to learn to break the cycle of negative thinking (Figure 1). The second step is to learn to re-orientate your negative cycle of thinking to a positive one. Let’s look at step one first.…….
Step 1: Breaking the cycle of negative thinking
These are the thought stopping techniques; simply methods of breaking or interrupting the negative cycle of thinking and thus taking back control of your thoughts and stopping them running riot.
- Get the right mind set. Don’t judge yourself or feel negative about the thoughts
- Find an image, word or action you can use to focus on and use it to break the cycle. This can be anything that works for you. Let’s explore some ideas e.g. Visualise a stop sign; and/or visualise putting the thoughts in a box and locking it; see yourself on a train and visualise changing rail tracks from destination worry & stress to destination calm & relaxed (slower, more beautiful journey etc.)
- Focus on your breathing and breathe deeply and slowly for a count of 3 or 5
- Clench and relax your shoulders
- Use a word or phrase that means something to you and repeat it……..like a mantra. Try something like “I am calm” or “I am at peace”.
You can use any combination of these you like to help you break that cycle.
Step 2: Re-orientate your negative cycle of thinking
This is where you start to repopulate your negative thought cycle with something more positive. This stage is not easy because you have to put things into perspective and you might have to make some changes or some difficult decisions as well. This depends on your particular situation and pattern of thought. However, if we review the example of a negative cycle (Figure 1), it might look something like this:
Figure 3: Positive thought cycle
Step 3: Practice!!
Practice does not make perfect, but it does help. Remember these little bits of wisdom……….
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit”. Aristotle
“This too shall pass.” Sufi parable.
All the examples here are taken from my book Challenging stress, burnout & rustout: Finding balance in busy lives. If you’d like a copy you can buy it here.
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