“Don’t believe everything you think” Allan Lokos
For a New Year’s resolution, why not try thought training, a way of ensuring that your thoughts serve you through the year? Training your thoughts is especially important if you face anxiety, OCD, or depression and constantly feel bombarded by negative thoughts, but it is useful for anyone managing the at times overwhelming stresses of modern life.
The reality of being human is that we spend more time talking to ourselves than anyone else. Much of this self-talk follows automatic patterns we may not even be conscious of. And how we talk to ourselves influences our emotional state—our mood, outlook, and peace of mind. We can speak to ourselves with many different voices, including the voice of an angry parent to a child—persistently critical and condescending. Such patterns of negative self-talk do not make for a happy, productive life. They predict worst case scenarios, robbing you of the present moment. If you train your thoughts, however, and stick to the regimen, you can find a clearer, more peaceful inner life. In fact, talking nicely to yourself is more effective at bringing about real change than self criticism.*
7 Steps to Training your Thoughts:
- Label your thoughts: Most negative self-talk goes unfiltered. Noticing and labelling these thought patterns changes their trajectory, taking you out of automatic routine and rehearsal and into the reality of present-centered being. To do this, simply notice and label the thought without judgment: “There is that (anxiety / depressive / negative) thought again.”
- Note the Context: Establish the context of the thought. Negative self-talk is never accurate and is focused on blame for the past or avoiding pain in the future. Noting the context and underlying patterns helps release such thoughts. Are you chastising yourself, trying to shame yourself into doing better (which never works), or is there another pattern at work? Noting the context may sound something like this: “I know I tend to get anxiety when I think about (the mortgage / relatives / my relationship) and this makes me feel worse in the present because I blame myself.
- Release Your Thoughts: Let the thought go, like a leaf falling back into the stream from where it was plucked. Our minds are like gigantic thought producing factories, overproducing in case we might need one of those thoughts at some point. The average person has 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day. If you tried to host every thought you would completely exhaust your mind. For the most part, we are able to tune these thoughts out, and they become background noise. Some thoughts are more dogged, however. With anxiety, the “But what if this really happens?” feeling makes it hard to leave thoughts alone. This is where training is essential:
Imagine opening your hand and letting the thought go, like a leaf falling back in the stream of thoughts. Any visual tool that you have can help with this process, as visualizing engages more areas of the brain—more brain power to counter ingrained patterns. See thoughts falling into the garbage, being released into outer space, put into a fire as kindling, or imagine weeds from the garden put onto the weed pile.
- Repeat Often: Once you get the hang of it, letting thoughts come and go becomes a natural process. Thought training helps you become as good at letting thoughts go as at grasping them, so that the two processes cancel each other out. Practice is essential.
When you start on an exercise program, it takes a while to develop a muscle memory of how to perform activities correctly. And, to avoid plateaus, you must change-up the routine or weight, keeping things fresh, interesting, and challenging. The same is true with training your thoughts. Use a variety of tools in different ways to keep yourself engaged with letting thoughts go. Also, try to incorporate throughout your day. Just as going to the gym once (or twice) a day does not undo all the damage of sitting for 8 hours a day, practicing thought training throughout the day is more effective (but even once or twice is helpful).
- Focus on More Realistic Thoughts: Having realistic thoughts to focus on can help in letting go of automatic, unrealistic ones. When you think, “Today is terrible and I don’t want to get up and go to work; I really don’t want to do this.” Try to focus on something realistic and rewarding: “I am feeling anxiety this morning, these are anxiety thoughts. I am going to focus on getting my feet out of bed and getting some coffee. Warm slippers and a warm cup of coffee would feel great right now.” And, focus on one small step at a time; the greater picture of your day, work project, house to clean can feel overwhelming.
- Balance your Lifestyle: Being at high stress levels lowers your buffers against automatic thought patterns. A healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep are some of the basics. Just as important are having a good social network and using it, dealing with work stress, putting quality time in with your spouse or partner, having good posture, breathing well, and having fun.
- Be Self-Compassionate: I have seen the best results with clients who set realistic goals and work slowly to improve. Essential here is having self-compassion rather than self judgement. Self-compassion is awareness without judgment. Rather than telling yourself, “That was dumb, I better not have that thought again. Here I am a month into this and I still can’t get rid of my thoughts” say: “There is that thought again I am working on letting it go.”
The above tips are some basic tools for managing your thoughts, like a pair of running shoes or a set of dumbbells. However, everyone’s thought patterns and mental-emotional challenges are different and one program does not fit all. Imagine going to a doctor who says, “I am just going to prescribe the same medication as I gave me last patient” without finding out what your issues are. Some forms of anxiety, for instance, are deep-rooted and long-standing, requiring tools specific to the person. Contact me for more information about how to create your own personalized thought training program.
*See by Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct for the research on why self-compassion is so effective.