As I was pondering what to write this week, I found a post I’d written more than two months ago but shelved because the pandemic took front and center. It now seems like a good time to share it, especially if your thoughts are taking you places you don’t want to go….
When is the last time you checked inside your head to see what thoughts are rolling (or roiling) around in there?
If you’re like most people, you’re a bit asleep at the wheel when it comes to your thoughts. You have them, of course–in fact, tens of thousands every day–but chances are you’re not really aware of what they are–or the effect they’re having on you and the people around you.
Our thoughts are a bit like the ‘white noise’ machine that helps some of us sleep: they whoosh and whir around but remain largely in the background of our awareness.
Left unattended, our thoughts usually wend their way towards trouble. You know, things like: “life is hard, “things are terrible”, “I’m a mess” and “we’re all going to die”. (Who says you’re not a charmer?)
That’s because our brains have what’s called a ‘negativity bias’, which means that nearly 80% of our thoughts are tilted towards what could go wrong.
As the renowned psychologist Rick Hanson says, our brain is “like teflon for the good and velcro for the bad”. In other words, we cling to what’s negative while letting what’s good slip by without much notice.
We don’t mean to be like this. The fact is, we inherited the brains of our ancestors who were entirely focused on safety and survival. They had to be. Their daily lives were made up of life or death situations. (They probably rocked a loin cloth but I doubt they were relaxing to be around.)
The good news is that, over time, our brains developed so we could also engage in things like self awareness, abstract thinking, creativity, and imagination–thanks to the neocortex, located just behind the forehead.
In short, we got to start thinking about things other than safety and survival, like “What’s the meaning of life?” “How does gravity work?” “Do these pants make my butt look big?”
The bad news is, this newer part of the brain can get hijacked faster than you can say Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. In a nano second, we can be thrown right back into survival mode (think: loin cloth and spear).
What’s the significance of this? Unless we enjoy living in survival mode (where we’re chronically stressed), it behooves us to learn to navigate in a way that feels better. One of those ways is to attend to our thought life. We have the capacity to do this and yes, it takes some practice.
Here’s an easy way to help you begin to shift out of reactive mode (survival) and into responsive mode (more calm and at choice)
Step 1: Get into the habit of noticing what you’re thinking–and how you’re thinking about it. This is especially helpful if you’re feeling anxious, your mind is racing, or wait, I have an idea….when you’re in the middle of a pandemic. Imagine that you can place your thoughts on a table in front of you. This helps create space between you and your thoughts so you can look at them more objectively.
Step 2: Ask yourself “Is what I’m thinking actually true?” Are these thoughts grounded in fact? In reality? Or have I slipped into negative thinking? If so, pause and remember your sweet brain simply thinks it’s doing its job: keeping you safe. Just knowing this can often help you work more skillfully with your thoughts.
Step 3: “Is what I’m thinking about happening in the present moment? 99% of the time we’re thinking about things that happened in the past or might happen in the future. Neither of these places exists, meaning there’s nothing you can do about them. Instead, take a deep breath and bring yourself into the present moment. See if you can settle into feeling okay right here, right now. Things usually feel more manageable from this place.
Step 4: Ask yourself how you want to feel. Calm? Confident? Trusting? Do the thoughts you’re having support that? If not, what shift(s) could you make that would bring you closer to the feeling you desire? Perhaps you could adjust your posture, unclench your jaw or hands, or choose different words to express what you’re experiencing.
To be clear, the goal isn’t to dismiss our anxious or negative thoughts so we can think only happy ones. We’re not trying to become a bunch of pollyannas here. (Besides, stress and anxiety aren’t inherently bad–they’re signals that we don’t feel safe. It’s when these signals go unchecked or uninterrupted for long periods of time that our survival mode kicks in.)
The goal is to remember we have agency over the thoughts we think–we do not have to be victims of them.
When you consider that our thoughts affect our moods, our moods affect our body and behavior, and our body and behavior circle back around to affect our thoughts, it becomes clear how important this kind of practice can be.
By paying attention to our thoughts, we can be more at choice about how we’re experiencing life and, especially at this time, find a way to ease some of our suffering.
I hope you’re safe and well. I send you thoughts of ease in these whackadoodle and heartbreaking times. Let me know how you’re faring these days. xo