Have you ever paid attention to what’s actually going on inside your head? The absolutely chaotic mess of thoughts we’re being subjected to at any given moment? It’s terrifying!
The Way the Mind Works
The world inside our heads can be chaotic at times. Our thoughts often come at us like rapid fire, one after another. Some of these thoughts might be neutral—such as, “Oh, the doorbell rang,” or “I’m out of milk”—while other thoughts might be heavily emotionally charged—such as “Omg I won the lottery!” or “Ahh, the world is ending!” But no matter what their content or charge, these thoughts keep coming. That’s just the way the mind works.
Let’s now consider this COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are thinking something along the lines of, “This sucks!” This is a very common thought.
How We Handle Emotionally Charged Thoughts
When an emotionally charged thought such as this one enters our mind, well… we don’t like it. Lol. And when we encounter a thought that is as emotionally charged as this one, we typically engage in one of two behaviours (or perhaps both):
When We Push Thoughts Away
If we don’t like the content of a thought, we might try to push the thought away. Not caring for how the thought makes us feel, we try to get as far away from the thought as possible. We might engage in denial—pretending we didn’t have the thought in the first place—and try to bury the thought as deeply as possible. Or we might beat ourselves up over having the thought, thinking we shouldn’t have those sorts of thoughts at all; how dare we! Perhaps we compare ourselves to others who “have it worse,” resulting in a whole slew of guilty feelings for having the thought in the first place.
Whatever the technique, pushing emotionally charged thoughts away is a common practice, particularly for negative thoughts.
When We Cling to Our Thoughts
Alternately, we might engage in a pull with our thoughts; we might hold onto our thoughts. This is very common for thoughts that we like, thoughts that give us all sorts of happy feels. But we also do this quite often with negative thoughts.
And right now, during this COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are doing just that. “This sucks!” passes through our minds, and we cling to it. We hold onto that thought, circling it around and around in our minds. Dwelling on it. Wallowing in it. The thought seems so heavily charged for us that we can’t get it out of our minds.
There is Another Way
So when we encounter an emotionally charged thought, we often engage in this push-and-pull in our minds. Sometimes just the push, sometimes just the pull, often back and forth between the two.
This struggle that we engage in so much of the time: it is so overwhelming and exhausting. And the stress that we experience because of this push-and-pull only serves to exacerbate the stress we’re already feeling because of our difficult circumstances. So what can we do?
We can choose to handle our thoughts differently.
Practise Letting Your Thoughts Go
Instead of responding with our typical push or pull with our thoughts, we can engage in a mindfulness activity when these thoughts inevitably arise.
Try this exercise: Take the role of observer with your thoughts. There are many ways to do this. You can imagine your thoughts as words in the air, as balloons floating past, or as bubbles forming on the surface of a pond. However you imagine your thoughts, the most important thing is to take that observer role. Your job is to simply watch these thoughts as they come up.
Imagine that the thought “This sucks!” floats past. With this exercise, instead of engaging with the content of the thought in any way, you simply make note of its presence, and let it go. Watch it float away.
And when the next thought inevitably comes—and it, too, might be a heavily charged thought—you simply make note of it, and let it go. Watch it float away.
Keep doing this for every thought that comes up. Simply pay attention to it, make note of it without judgement, and let it go.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
In practising this technique, you will come to realize that these thoughts are just thoughts. No matter how compelling, no matter how emotionally charged, no matter how valid the content: these are just thoughts in our heads. We don’t have to get caught up in them. We don’t have to let them control us. We don’t have to let them shape our day, or rule our lives.
With practice, we can get better at this technique. And in doing so, we discover something incredibly liberating: we have control over our responses to our thoughts. Our thoughts do not control us; our thoughts do not define us; and we are, in fact, not our thoughts.
Is there a particularly compelling thought on your mind these days? Consider trying this mindfulness exercise with the thought, and practise letting the thought go. If doing so can bring even brief moments of calm, it is well worth the effort.
Here’s an excellent book if you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness: “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
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