Dear Therapist..."Negative Thoughts Are Weighing Me Down"
I’m really struggling with my overactive mind and negative thoughts. Any suggestions?
Taming our unruly minds is an age-old challenge. Some ancient wisdom traditions dating back thousands of years even sound like precursors to modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The Yoga Sutras outline the theory and science of yoga as a practice of stilling the mind. The Buddha, too, was clear that training the active mind is difficult but essential for wellbeing. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome challenged students to control their thoughts to transform their beliefs and emotions. So our psychology hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years. Nor has the counsel for befriending our minds: progress is achieved not by luck or accident but by working on it day in, day out.
Conscious attention and redirection is needed because our thoughts naturally skew to the negative. Most of us are aware of the negativity bias which is part of our survival system that keeps us safe. But many people don’t realise just how biased our thinking is: roughly 80% of our thoughts are negative and, of these, 95% are repeated. Let that humbling estimate from the National Science Foundation (US) sink in. No wonder so many of us share author Anne Lamott’s sentiment: ‘My mind is like a bad neighbourhood. I try not to go there alone.’ But go there we must to clean up a neighbourhood littered with the neurological junk of cognitive distortions.
Three common cognitive distortions we can hone in on as a starting place:
- Catastrophising: Irrational fears that lead us to believe something is far worse than it actually is; over-estimating risks
- Discounting: Minimising our positive attributes which leads to underestimating ourselves; can morph into the inner critic
- Mindreading: Negative assumptions regarding what others think/feel. The thing about assumptions is we rarely make positive ones (negativity bias again!) so the thinking is distorted and not to be trusted
I would recommend you take the perspective of a garbage sifter and notice when and if a thought can be categorised as one of the above. Just name the thought as catastrophising or discounting or mindreading and experiment with letting it go, relegating it to the waste bin.
When we give more time and energy to these distorted thoughts, we strengthen their hold on us. (‘Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows’ as psychiatrist and Mindsight Institute Director Dan Siegel reminds us.)
The above may sound overly simplistic as these thoughts can be pernicious, even addictive. This is a practice that requires ongoing attention but does get easier over time. Often it is handy to have a short phrase, visual or action as a reminder (80%, 95%!). One of my clients says to himself ‘cancel, cancel’ recalling his intention to keep his inner critic’s ongoing discounting in check. Another has an image of a ‘dead end’ road sign he invokes as an aide-memoire no good comes from mindreading.
My personal favourite is from Korean monk-cum-author Haemin Sunim who shared this phrase during a London Q&A I attended years ago: ‘Dear thoughts, thank you for your concern. I’ll worry about you when and if I need to worry about you.’ I’ve been saying ‘Dear Thoughts…’ as a shortened nudge to myself ever since.
Sometimes words or images won’t suffice and we can engage the body: breaking out in jumping jacks is one client’s tactic to derail her catastrophic thoughts.
Play with coming up with your own tactic. Give yourself time. Don’t judge or fight the thoughts as they come (that’s just more energy their way). You are human and your brain is trying to keep you safe, it just needs a bit of gentle guidance and adjustment. Give a knowing wink to distorted thoughts, employ your phrase, visual or action, and move on.
Do you have a question for Dear Therapist? Send it to email@example.com with Dear Therapist in the subject line and Charlotte Fox Weber or Kelly Hearn will get back to you.