There’s enough to think about for most of us without thinking too much about thinking itself.
But as a mindfulness teacher and keen thought-thinker, the data-stream running through our heads, how to talk about it, and what to do with it, provides me with an endless source of fascination.
Thinking, after all, along with emotions and body sensations, makes up our internal environment of self-awareness. This interiority is as much our home, as our house or apartment. We live in, and amongst, our thoughts, and the environment they create can feel joyful, bleak, or even threatening.
The research suggests there are three types of thought which are so distinct they can be seen arising in different parts of the brain:
- Insightful (problem-solving)
- Experiential (task-focused)
- Incessant (mind chatter)
Professionals tend to be highly skilled in analytical thinking and problem-solving which calls on both insightful and experiential thinking. On the other hand, they often suffer from significant periods of incessant thinking or mind chatter for the following fairly obvious reasons:
- The to-do list is a never-ending stream of commitments.
- The modern workplace is complex, emotionally-charged, political, and volatile.
- Digital advancements have led to evaporating boundaries between work-time and home-time
- A perfectionist streak is common, often accompanied by a vocal inner critic.
- Personal life responsibilities, care-taking roles, social life, and more, add further weight to the load.
The outcomes of prolonged incessant thinking are just as predictable and include exhaustion, difficulties relaxing, and problems getting off to sleep. In addition, there can be a growing sense of low level anxiety and increasingly active amygdalae (the two pea-shaped panic-buttons in the brain which initiate the stress reaction getting us adrenalised and ready to respond to threats). We now know that these amygdalae grow larger and more sensitive the more they are activated, escalating the stress reaction more frequently than we might consider helpful (something which can also be reversed by a change of behaviour, such as taking up mindfulness meditation).
In mindfulness we look particularly at two styles of incessant thoughts, catastrophising and rumination.
That meeting went terribly.
James really reacted badly.
Agh – that look he gave me – I know he is going to complain to my boss.
I’m going to come in tomorrow and be fired.
What about the school fees?
We’ll have to move.
I’ve let everyone down.
I’m a failure.
That meeting was a nightmare.
I wonder what we’ll do for dinner tonight?
That meeting though…I wish I’d said something else. Anything else.
Why would I say that – it’s so unlike me.
We could try that new Italian restaurant maybe?
I won’t enjoy it though – that meeting will be the end of me.
I’ve got to get myself out of this – how could I have been so silly?
Why did I say THAT!
In these processes, we are casting our mind either into the future (catastrophising) or mulling over the past (rumination) and yet our body and emotions will be experiencing the stress as if it was happening over and over in the present. This is as exhausting as it is futile. Remember the illuminating words of Mark Twain who points to this when he says:
I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
If any of this rings true for you and you would like to try something new; here is a simple and quick exercise that can bring back some perspective and balance.
- On a piece of paper draw a line down the middle to create two columns.
- Head the first column VENT and the second TRUE.
- In the VENT column write down an unfiltered stream of consciousness: eg. You can’t do it. You aren’t clever enough. You don’t know what you are doing. You are lazy. It is hopeless etc.
- Now in the TRUE column write down a list of facts that relate to the situation. Be ruthless – watch out for any assumptions, speculations and exaggerations that are creeping in. Only known facts are allowed: e I am trying my best. This is a complex issue. I can ask for support. I don’t have all the information I need. I am working hard.
- Now read both columns and mindfully consider your next steps. Write them down on a new note: eg. 1) Tell Manager what happened. 2. Be open and honest. 3. Make amends.
- Throw the Vent/True piece of paper away.
- Go on with your day.
My other suggestion is to start taking incessant thoughts less seriously. I often laugh out loud at the strange, dark, ridiculous, or Machiavellian thoughts that pop into my head. I notice too that they come thick and fast when I am tired, hungry, or stressed about multiple things. I just watch them come and go, treating them as a symptom that I need to rest, eat, or seek support. I no longer believe them, judge myself for having them, or identify with them. This is a big relief.
And, if mindfulness still hasn’t found its way into your day, you could always give that a go too!
What do you think?
By Neil Seligman
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