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3 things to know to stop letting your thoughts feed your stress

Our mind is a mysterious place. Most of us associate our mind as the thing/place that has thoughts. Many, many thoughts. Brilliant thoughts, difficult thoughts, practical thoughts, crazy thoughts, all kind of thoughts. Our thoughts can be incredibly compelling, exhausting, enticing, overwhelming and everything in between. This can feel quite overwhelming and automatic.

Research has shown that how we relate to what we think plays a significant role how happy and satisfied we feel. While we cannot control our thoughts, we can decide how we react to our thoughts. Often, it is our reaction to our thoughts that feeds our stress and unhappiness, rather than the thought itself.

How we react to our thoughts will determine how dominant these thoughts become. The thoughts we feed through reacting to them will become the dominant thoughts. When we train our minds, we can stop feeding the ones that feed stress, and start feeding more supportive thoughts. This will have a huge impact on how we feel in our life.

The thing with thoughts is, that while they are personal, they are also universal. We all have similar patterns in our thoughts. Knowing the below three things about your thoughts might help you look at them in a different way. You will see that, quite often, we do not have to react to our thoughts at all.

#1 Thoughts are not facts

The first thing to know about thoughts is that because we think it we believe it. Our thoughts can feel very convincing but we rarely take the time to check if they are true. We struggle to not believe our own thoughts. Our own thoughts are very compelling to us and give us all kinds of emotions and the more emotions are involved the more we believe the thought.

The first thing to know about thoughts is that because we think it we believe it.

Let’s try to clarify with a little exercise: Imagine you are walking down the street near your home, and you see someone you know. You wave and shout out – but the person does not react and keeps on walking. What goes through your mind? What do you feel? What do you do?

You could be thinking that they did not see you, that you will call them later and as such not have any strong emotion and just go on with the rest of your day. You might forget the incident pretty soon. But also, you could be thinking that they were being arrogant, deliberately ignoring you, and start feeling angry or doubting yourself, getting into a bad mood that influences the rest of your day.

Neither thoughts are right or wrong, the event remains the same. We do not know why the person did not react and kept on walking, so any interpretation we can imagine might be right, and might be wrong. However, for ourselves, it makes a huge difference how we interpret the event, and how we interpret the event determines what happens next, both in our mind and in what we do.

When we do not train our mind, we are inclined to be at the mercy of our thoughts. In the example above, if we are having a bad day, we are likely to have a more negative interpretation of the event of someone not waving back. This will possibly not only influence the rest of our day, but also how we relate to this person in the future.

With a trained mind, no matter what type of day we are having, or what we might think of the situation, we will be able to step back, realize that our interpretation is just ours and says nothing about the actual event, and we can ensure it does not influence our mood, relationship with the person, or how we feel about ourselves.

#2 Thoughts create monsters if you let them

The second thing to know about our thoughts is that they are influenced by the fact that our brain spots danger much easier than it spots nice and pleasant things. This is called the ‘negativity bias’ of our brain (check out Rick Hanson’s work on this: www.rickhanson.net ). This negativity bias has been crucial for our survival, as survival depends much more on spotting the danger than spotting the pleasant and nice. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t just spot external existential threats. Our own thoughts and interpretations can also signal to our brain that there is danger lurking.

When we spot danger our body and brain activate its ‘threat systems’ and this, as you can imagine, is stressful. The threat system is very helpful when something is actually a danger to us, because we will be able to run quicker, fight better or shut down if needed. It is not so helpful when it is our thoughts that have created the danger, because then there is nothing really to fight, run from or shut down – although we can exhaust ourselves trying.

Remember, we cannot control what we think, but we can decide what we do with thoughts.

We often tend to think that these kinds of negative thoughts are our enemy. But in fact, by trying to fight, run from or shut down thoughts we do not like, we are in fact feeding them and making them stronger, creating our own monsters.

Training your mind will allow you to see more clearly when you are creating your own monster and give you the skills to stop feeding the beast. The way that you can do this is by allowing thoughts to be just as they are, without reacting to them, recognising them, and also, at appropriate times, challenging them on their ‘correctness’.

#3 Thoughts can be symptoms of stress

Imagine a friend calls you up and says to you they’ve got a headache, a sore throat, and a runny nose, what do you say? You probably say, hey, you’ve got a cold, take a hot drink and go to bed.

You recognised some common symptoms and probably diagnosed your friend correctly. Now, we will leave more complicated diagnosis to medical professionals, but our thoughts can also signal that something is not quite right, and we might need to take a hot drink and go to bed (or do some other self-care thing).

We can actually recognise that we are too stressed by the thoughts we are having, even before we might actually admit it to ourselves, and before it can lead to bigger, more complicated issues like a burn-out.

Thoughts that are symptoms of stress are often centred around feeling responsible for everything and everyone and thoughts of personal failure.

For example, a though like ‘I cannot enjoy myself without thinking about all the things that need to be done’ or ‘I must be strong’ or ‘There must be something wrong with me’, or ‘why can’t I relax’.

Just like stress has its signature thoughts, so do three strong emotions: depression, anger and fear. You can probably guess that thoughts that tell you that you are worthless, life is no fun and the future is bleak indicates that you are not feeling very happy. Thoughts that focus in on some kind of threat, like ‘they might think I am stupid’ signals anxiety. Anger thoughts are often about being treated unfairly and how someone is ‘trying to put you down’.

Why is this important to know? Two reasons: the first links back to ‘thoughts are not facts’ so when you recognise some of these more difficult thoughts as just symptoms of stress, anger, anxiety or feeling blue, it may be easier to take them as a sign that you might be ‘coming down with something’. You can then step out of the thought train and not feed them and make it more difficult for yourself (see point two about creating your own monster). The second reason is that when you start noticing these thoughts and how often they appear, you might want to take care of yourself a little (or a lot), like you would if you had a cold and treat the symptoms of stress, anger, fear or feeling blue with care.

Training your mind allows you to recognize your thoughts and as such, identify early signs of difficult mind-states, giving you choices in how you respond to them.

How do you train your mind?

The best way to train your mind is by knowing your mind and steering your mind towards positive and supportive mind-states. You can do this through:

  1. Educate yourself about the workings of the brain and mind (like reading this article),
  2. Practice different kinds of meditation, for focus, awareness and training supportive mind states. Try a meditation from the meditation library.
  3. Create conditions in your life that supports mind-states that do not feed stress. Things like, slowing down, not multi-tasking, learning to step out of thought cycles, resting when recognising stress thoughts and so much more.