Do you want to get better at controlling your thoughts, rather than letting your thoughts control you? I often say to coaching clients: “Don’t let your thoughts drag you around by your hair.”
As an over-thinker, I’m an expert on rumination. My mind loves to grab onto something unpleasant and think about it as much as it can. I’m at high risk of this whenever I’m feeling anxious, or feel annoyed with someone. On some level, thinking obsessively about something might feel constructive or protective. It really isn’t, though. I drive myself crazy (and waste a lot of cognitive and emotional bandwidth) if I let it get out of control.
What you think, matters. The more you think a certain thought, the more likely you are to have it again.
Recurring negative thoughts set up circuits in your brain
In your brain, the neural pathway or circuit that represents a particular thought gets activated each time you have that thought. The more you think it, the more entrenched that pathway gets.
Let’s say there’s something new you start to worry about. The first time the thought occurs to you, you get a small jolt of anxiety.
As an example, you may have been reading the news online. Another headline warns of a possible recession. For the first time, you have the thought that you might lose your job if a recession hits. It worries you enough, that you start to think about it whenever you hear more news about a possible recession.
As this particular thought circuit gets strengthened, the thought starts to keep you up at night, when there’s nothing else to distract you.
Eventually, it pops into your head unbidden, at random times. It distracts you during an important meeting with your boss, or when you’re working on a deadline. Now you worry that this fearful thought might affect the quality of your work. Ironically, this makes you more likely to be laid off. So you worry about it more.
It gets to the point that you think about it frequently, whenever you’re with your spouse. They’ve commented that you seem distracted lately, but you haven’t wanted to bring up why. You don’t want to worry them, too.
There’s no recession yet. You’ve always done a good job. The company is quite stable and your boss has always seemed to be happy with you. But you still worry. Because – what if?
You can take back control of your head
On the extreme end, this type of persistent, anxiety-provoking thinking might point to a more significant psychological disorder, such as generalized anxiety or OCD. But I see this extremely common phenomenon occur in many of my otherwise mentally healthy patients and clients (and in myself, and people close to me, too).
You have a role in this process. As I’ve mentioned, based on principles of neuroplasticity, your brain will hardwire in a thought that you think frequently. You allow yourself to have the thought, and keep it going in your head. That has to happen first.
If you’re a person who tends to worry, ruminate or stew, be wary of this. Stand guard at the door of your mind.
Cultivate awareness. Don’t just be a passive bystander on the highway of your head.
Examine your thought life
Just because you have a thought, even if it’s frequent, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Anxiety, depression, stress, misguided beliefs and past experiences can hardwire maladaptive thought patterns into our brains.
These types of thoughts take different forms: “I’m a failure.” “No one likes me.” “I can’t do anything right.” “I’ll never be able to change.” “Something will go wrong.” “They don’t like me.” “My spouse is always so ____.” The list goes on.
Whenever you notice that a negative thought is setting up shop in your head, question it. Is it worth allowing it to stomp around your consciousness, whenever it wants to?
Ask yourself the right questions
When I notice this type of thought or belief pattern in a client or patient, I love to prove it wrong. I start asking questions about my client’s persistent negative thoughts (or my own). Pretty soon, it’s clear that the thought or belief is either wrong, an exaggeration, unhelpful or destructive.
Some questions to ask:
Is it really true? Is there evidence to the contrary?
What’s the impact of allowing this thought to regularly take up space in your head? Is there a healthier perspective you could focus on, instead?
Replace “stinking thinking” with truth
We can weaken the lies in our lives, and build up our brains (and our lives), with truth.
Weaken and dismantle entrenched negative thought circuits, by refusing to ride that unhelpful path. Build a more truthful, helpful circuit instead.Replace the negative thought pattern with something that is more accurate. Not just “positive thinking,” but real truth. Truth is powerful.
In the rare event that the persistent negative thought points to an urgent issue that must be dealt with, you could problem-solve the situation, once and for all (and refuse to worry about it anymore, once you’ve done what you can). This is far more constructive than letting your concerns run around and around without a solution.
Cultivate the habit of stepping back from, observing and evaluating your thoughts. Especially if there’s a negative one that keeps popping up and is causing you distress.
Of course, getting help from a doctor, psychologist or mentor might be a good idea, too. Especially if recurrent thoughts are causing you significant distress, affecting your relationships or interfering with your ability to function.
Trusted people can be a great source of truth in our lives.