Do you sometimes fall down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts? Then maybe you need to learn how to see your thoughts simply as thoughts, instead of the truth
This mind of ours is a wonderful thing, however sometimes we can meet some pretty unhelpful and dark thoughts. Have you noticed sometimes that at work you think a lot about being at home. And when you’re at home, you can’t stop thinking about work? Mindfulness training can help us to have some choice about the thousands of thoughts that come to our mind each day. We can learn to start observing them as mental events, which is called metacognition. This refers to the ability to become aware of the quality of the mind. And the ability to become aware of thoughts as they are coming into our awareness.
We spend so much time on autopilot that we don’t even notice the quality of our thoughts. We often don’t realise that allowing ourselves to get whisked in any direction by our thoughts can affect how we feel. It can also affect how we are interpret things that happen during the day.
Very often when we have a painful emotional or bodily experience, the thinking we add to the initial experience adds a lot of suffering. This is referred to the ‘two darts’ in mindfulness. We can’t stop the first dart, this pain is just a normal part of being alive. It refers to sickness, loss, grief and so on. However we have some power over the second dart. This is the dart of not wanting things to be as they are, and comes in the form of thoughts such as why me? Why is this happening again? It’s not fair! What’s wrong with me? Exploring the body sensations that arise with thoughts like these allows us to explore the experience, rather than moving into ruminative thinking about how or why this happened. Which is often fruitless and only serves to increase our distress.
The power of thoughts
According to Segal, Williams & Teasdale, the creators of the 8 Week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme, our thoughts have a powerful effect on what we do and how we feel. And they are often triggered quite automatically, with similar thoughts continuing to loop through the mind. By becoming aware of thinking patterns we have some ability to notice and use our anchor of the breath to ground ourselves in the present moment.
This allows us some choice around following a certain thinking pattern. By observing the thoughts in this way, we have an opportunity to widen our view and gain some perspective on what the mind has narrowly focused in on. We also realise there may be other ways to think about the situation.
Dealing with habitual thinking
Being able to notice our thoughts can also allow us to notice some of the habitual thinking occurring on a daily basis, which we mightn’t ordinarily be aware of. There can be a subtle theme of ‘I’m not good enough’ running through the background of our experiences, just beneath awareness, until we start this mental training of mindfulness. And it can be quite a surprise to notice how much this is happening.
These unhelpful thinking patterns can lead us into a downward spiral, affect our moods and increase our levels of stress. We can very easily move from one unhelpful thought to another, and suddenly we are down a rabbit hole, lost in thoughts. By noticing when we are lost in thoughts we can choose to begin again. This can support us in coming to the present moment and regain perspective on the situation. It is also worth mentioning that we may realise that some unresolved emotional experiences in our past may need some attention. Perhaps we need to spend some time with a therapist to allow some healing of old wounds.
It can be quite freeing to be able to step back from our thoughts and realise that they are not ‘me’ or ‘reality’. Some thoughts are helpful and some thoughts are unhelpful and being able to see this and distinguish between the two can offer us some liberation from this busy mind.
Ways you can see your thoughts differently
- Watch them come in and leave, without feeling that you have to follow them.
- See if it is possible to notice the feelings that give rise to the thoughts. The context in which your thoughts are but one link in a chain of events.
- View your thought as a mental event rather than a fact. It’s tempting to think of thoughts as being true, but it’s up to you how you want to deal with it.
- Write your thoughts down on paper. This lets you see them in a way that is less emotional and overwhelming. Also, the pause between having the thought and writing it down can give you a moment to respond to it differently.
- For particularly difficult thoughts, it may be helpful to take another look at them intentionally, in a balanced, open state of mind
Suggested meditation practices
- Use the 3 Step Breathing Space at times when thoughts are very busy or we feel overwhelmed. We can also just use this to become aware of the quality of the mind, body and feelings during the day.
- Use the Breath & Body 10 minute daily practice then you need help to jump out of the plane.
For more details on mindfulness training, check out mindfulness courses at www.mindfulness.ie
This Blog is adapted from Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G., & Teasdale, J.D. (2013). Mindfulness–Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse (Second Edition). London: The Guilford Press.