Do Not Believe Everything You Think! How to Become Thought Wise - Written by: Carol Dawidowicz, MFT
Have you ever noticed that your mind is a very busy place? When not engrossed in a task or conversation most people report being bombarded by thoughts. I was curious about this topic so I did a bit of research. Most sources indicate that humans have between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day! Many clients report that when they are feeling sad or anxious their minds tend to fixate on a particular topic, usually one that is upsetting. They may even be trying to relax or enjoy an activity and find unpleasant thoughts intrude repeatedly. This is called rumination. Has this ever happened to you? Or have you ever found yourself spending a lot of time thinking about the past or future and “forgetting” about the present moment? It has been said that the mind can be our friend or our enemy. Our mind helps us when it presents us with creative or useful ideas and allows us to notice and react appropriately to what is going on. Many of our thoughts are helpful or neutral. Thoughts can motivate us to action (i.e. remembering to study for a test or to pay a bill). However our mind harms us when it becomes consumed with negativity. A negative, unhelpful thought or cognitive distortion is one that is false or biased. It may be assumption-based such as “My friend hasn’t called me this week. She must be annoyed with me.” Distorted thoughts can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and even lead to poor behavior choices. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence based treatment that focuses on identifying and challenging distorted thoughts and behavior patterns. Let’s remove that cognitive distortion-- “My friend hasn’t called me this week. I do not know why. I feel sad and worried.” This is a very different way to think about the same situation. Thinking about the situation in a more helpful light can help us feel better and respond more appropriately. "I will call my friend and see how she is doing." With a little work and a few tools we can become more thought wise. One useful tool is Mindfulness, the act of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness helps us to notice what type of thoughts are going on without immediately reacting to them. We can then evaluate the nature of our thoughts and determine which are valuable and which are “garbage”. At times it is helpful to challenge an automatic thought-- “Wait, that is not accurate. I am not an idiot because I keep forgetting things. I have just been busy and distracted lately”. Try pausing at various points in the day and asking, “What is going on right now?” “What am I thinking?”. Notice. Take a deep breath. Try not to judge yourself. It can be useful to write down thoughts in moments when you feel upset or stressed. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy this is called keeping a thought record. Try a thought record for yourself at this link:
Another way to become more aware of your “thought life” is to begin a meditation practice. Some tips on starting a meditation practice.
Start with a small increment of time (5-10 minutes)
Find a place to sit comfortably where you will not be disturbed.
Bring your attention to your breathing for a few moments. Notice each breath, flowing in and out.
As thoughts arise, notice each one and allow it pass, like a cloud floating by in the sky.
Try to do this daily. You may not notice an immediate change in your mental state but over time the benefits of meditation accumulate. Consider trying a recorded “guided meditation”:
Know that it is normal to struggle with negative thoughts and feelings, especially in turbulent times. Working with a psychotherapist can also be helpful in your journey to understand the impact of your thoughts on your mental health. Best wishes on your journey to becoming more thought wise.
-Carol Dawidowicz, MFT