Blog Series: Everyday Mental Health: Harnessing the Power of Our Thoughts
Dr. Amanda Beaman, C.Psych
Welcome to the next set of articles in the Everyday Mental Health Series, Harnessing the Power of Our Thoughts. You may have already read the first articles in this series on planning. In these articles we discussed the ways that the deliberate and thoughtful planning can not only help us to feel productive, but can profoundly improve mental health by reducing anxiety and overwhelm, and nurturing our motivation system. It is recommended that you start by reading through these articles as they set the stage for the upcoming articles in the Everyday Mental Health Series.
The Power Thoughts
You may already be well aware of the powerful link between your thinking patterns and your well-being. Many people who seek help from us present to their initial appointment with goals to change the way they think. They may want to reduce the amount or frequency of their thoughts. We commonly hear “I want to stop thinking so much”, or “I wish I could shut off my brain as it keeps me up at night and stops me from being present”. Others have become aware of negative thoughts, and they want help to “stop thinking so negatively about things”. Often people are seeking help with both the amount and negative content of their thoughts. They may be disappointed to learn that there is no quick fix. When it comes to thoughts, we reframe the goal as “I want to change how I relate to my thoughts”.
You see, we can’t really control what pops into our head, and sometimes the more we try to control it, the more we may make the situation worse (more about that later). However, we can become aware of how we relate to our thoughts, and whether we are relating to them in a helpful or unhelpful way. Interestingly, if we change how we relate to our thoughts, it might actually impact the amount or tone of our thinking with time. At the very least, we learn to manage a busy mind and/or negative thoughts in a way that reduces the impact on our well-being.
So how do we change our relationship to our thoughts?
The first step to working on this is to increase our awareness of our internal experiences. In the beginning of therapy, we assign our clients awareness-building exercises to do, and this provides some important insight for them, and for us! Let’s illustrate with an example.
When Jill, a single, 34-year-old woman came to therapy, she described that she had experienced a lot of trouble relaxing since the pandemic as her mind was “always busy”. Not only was it “busy”, but she was also thinking a lot about negative things that caused anxiety and tension when she was trying to relax. She explained that at work she experienced less of this “negative busyness” in her mind. However, at home she would notice thoughts intruding during her downtime. She would try to distract herself with a variety of different things, such as TV, online games, talking to friends/family, or listening to music. While these distractions usually worked temporarily, eventually she’d find herself preoccupied with negative thoughts again. When it was time to sleep, her mind became busy again, and she was too tense/anxious to sleep. Over time, she began using distractions in bed such as listening to podcasts or “sleep stories” to be able to fall asleep. To gain some insight into Jill’s experiences, she wrote down the times when she noticed her mood change or a sense of “busyness” in her mind.
|Watching romantic comedy on tv
On the way to work in the car
|What if I never meet anyone? I will be miserable and alone…my friends must wonder what is wrong with me, why I can’t keep a relationship going…
We have a team meeting today. What if there is small talk at the beginning? I have nothing interesting to talk about. They will think I’m boring.
|Try to refocus on movie
Text friend- tell her how much I’m enjoying my movie night after my busy day.
Plan some things to say
Call colleague with excuse that I’ll arrive a couple minutes late due to traffic
Distract with music
There are just two entries in the journal, however we can learn a lot from them. What patterns do you notice? How do you think Jill is relating to her thoughts? Does it seem helpful or unhelpful?
As we explored the situations that Jill wrote down, we learned that when she isn’t distracted, her mind seems to become preoccupied with negative thoughts about how others think of her. It seems to start with a question (e.g. What if….?), and then she tends to answer the question in her own mind, usually painting a negative scenario of herself and what others think of her. This leads to her feeling a number of different emotions, and to a variety of behaviours. She then acts on the negative scenario in her head before it has even happened!
Now it’s your turn. If you’d like to build awareness of how you relate to your own thoughts, you could also start writing down situations where you notice you aren’t feeling at your best, or you feel a “busyness” in your mind. Learning to break down situations that are difficult into the component parts, as shown above, is a skill in itself, and alone can help lead to changes. In fact, when we want to make any change, it can be very helpful to first track the thing we’re trying to change for a while first – as we can learn what is keeping the problem going. For example, people are most successful at losing weight when they take time to track their eating habits- as this improves awareness of the factors that are contributing to weight gain and allows for concrete changes to be made.
However, when doing an exercise such as this, you may notice that you feel your emotions more intensely. This is because you are paying more attention to unhelpful thoughts, when you might normally try to distract from them. If it ever happens that you become too overwhelmed or feel unsafe, this type of exercise may be best completed with the help of a therapist. The strategies discussed in this blog are suggestions for people who may have noticed mild difficulties such as feeling more stressed or some minor changes in their mood. If you are noticing more severe symptoms such as panic attacks, very low mood, urges to self-harm or suicidal thoughts it is recommended that you seek help from a mental health provider, or if in crisis, access a crisis line. Please see the list of resources on our website.