If we had a penny for every thought we experience each day, we’d all be very wealthy. As human beings, thousands of thoughts swirl through our minds every day. And knowing this, do you wonder how many of those thoughts are actually helpful to our mental wellbeing? I’m interested in the answer for a number of reasons. I’m interested, because I know how my mental wellbeing is improved when I focus more on the helpful ones and less on the unhelpful ones. I’m interested because during challenging and stressful times, I’ve sometimes found it hard to distinguish between what are thoughts and actual facts. (I’ve had a lot of help to understand that this is ‘normal’ during extreme and prolonged periods of stress). And I’m interested, because despite receiving psychological support from my clinical psychologist for over a decade, I’m still trying to learn the art of effectively managing my thoughts and feelings. It will always be a work in progress. It is for all of us. Accepting and understanding this fact is part of the challenge of being human.
It’s with a drum roll therefore that I present to you something astounding and which some of you may already know: research tells us that of the thousands of thoughts going through our frazzled minds every day, 80% are negative and 95% are repeated from the day before. Now, if my maths is right, and when I last checked, my mathematical ability was good, this means that for every positive thought that goes through our minds, it’s accompanied by four negative ones. And, that most of the time, we’re repeating thoughts that we had the previous day. No wonder life can sometimes feel like a struggle! Is there any good news you might ask?
I’m delighted to say there is but the extent to which this good news impacts upon us is determined by how far we put it into practice; in the same way that physical exercise is good for us but only if we do it, and drinking less alcohol is better for us than drinking more. Neither of which is rocket science but they each share an annoying element of truism.
The good news is this: generally speaking, WE are in charge of OUR thoughts, NOT the other way round and given that our thoughts translate positively or negatively into the words that we say to ourselves, this is a really important piece of news. And, whatsmore, it’s not fake!
The narrative of our internal self-talk moulds who we are, based on the notion that our thoughts shape our actions, our values, our beliefs and ultimately our whole lives. Chatter in our mind that’s helpful, creates a healthy internal landscape freeing us up to reach our potential whilst unhealthy chatter saps us of our physical and mental energy, limiting our capabilities and distorting the perception of the real us.
Breaking free from self-destructive thought patterns and the negative voice of our inner critic is key to a calm mind but as I’ve learned through on-going support, there’s a huge difference between a calm mind and a still one. In the busy, hectic world that is 2020, the former is accessible, the latter’s achieveable only, if like a Tibetan monk, you have the opportunity to meditate for 16 hours a day. Real life has a habit of getting in the way of the Tibetan lifestyle!
And so, in keeping with the spirit of this post about the impact of helpful and unhelpful thoughts, I’d like to leave you with three tips, which I’ve found to be useful during my ongoing quest to manage my negative thoughts and feelings. (NB: note the use of the word ‘manage’ as opposed to ‘stop’. None of us have the ability to stop all negative thoughts. It’s part of being human).
Tip #1 – Evidence-based mindfulness research shows us that along with our mind, our breath can be a very powerful, calming tool.
Noticing my breathing and acknowledging if I’m breathing shallowly prompts me to pause for a moment and in doing so reminds me to try to take three slow, deep breaths.(If you’ve ever experienced panic attacks, you’ll know how quickly shallow breathing can lead to one). I’ve found this Box Breathing technique really helpful: take a deep inhalation to the count of four, hold it for the count of four and then slowly exhale for the count of four. Performed regularly, this can have a profound calming and settling effect on the mind and its thoughts. Regularly pausing throughout the day to take some deep breaths reminds us that we’re all inspiring.
Tip #2 – Observing our thoughts.
I’ve found it helpful to try to observe my thoughts as though they are passing through my mind, rather than becoming tangled up in them. This is a mindfulness technique, which I find particularly helpful when I’m trying to get to sleep. At other times of the day, acknowledging when I’m having anxious thoughts is an anchoring point and helps me to break a cycle of worry before it gains momentum. Allowing ourselves time to notice our thoughts and feelings is crucial to our wellbeing.
Tip #3 – Acknowledge when you’re having a diffcult day.
Burying our feelings and trying to put on a brave face fuels anxiety. It’s easier to cope with our thoughts when we’re not trying to be an actor at the same time. Being authentic and true to your feelings isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s pretending you’re ok when you’re not that makes you feel weak. Authenticity allows the reverse to happen: it helps you to become stronger and more resilient.
I hope that you find these tips useful and whatever today brings your way, remember this: look after your thoughts, nurture those that are helpful about yourself and discard the unhelpful ones if you can.