Thoughts bombard me from all angles. In the last minute alone, my mind has hopped from the welfare of a close relative to reminding myself of a vet appointment. I was snapped back to the present with the distraction of a text coming through. And then of course my mind gets caught up in the content of my text, which instigates other thoughts. Just shut up brain! For once, please be quiet.
We have up to 60,000 thoughts a day. Isn’t that incredible. But how many of these thoughts are serving us and how many are dragging us down? Apparently, the majority of these thoughts are negative and almost all of these thoughts are ones we had the previous day. If we have the same thoughts each day, where is the scope for change and growth? Imagine we could step away from the norm. Wouldn’t it be great if we could shed some repetitive thoughts and make space for new ideas?
In this article, we discuss the benefits of controlling our thoughts. I share some tips on how we can control our thoughts to help lighten our mental bandwidth.
Why it's important to control your thoughts
I understand, not all thoughts are negative. But it is our negative thoughts that grip our brain and stick their unwanted spiky claws into our cortex.
Think of the last big event in your life. Maybe it was completing a Ph.D. or launching a business. Perhaps it was organizing a large event or being involved in some sort of competition.
Did you experience the “what if” train? Did you ever find yourself stewing over all the things that could go wrong? Did you feel the sense of fear build as you mentally listed all the things that could cause you to fail?
- What if the bus doesn’t arrive on time?
- What if I’m late?
- What if I lose the key?
- What if I become ill?
- What if I forget my lines?
- What if people don’t support me?
- What if my outfit malfunctions??
When we go down the hole of “what ifs” we spend an awful lot of time fuelling our brains with fear. This is called ruminating, and it's a terrible thing to do. Essentially we are putting petrol in a diesel car. We are crippling our brains.
Fascinatingly, when we indulge in catastrophizing thoughts, we experience more acute and chronic pain.
This is why we need to give more space to positive thoughts. When we learn to control our thoughts and think constructively we are effectively putting premium petrol in our supercar brain. We evade physical and mental pain.
What happens if we don’t control our thoughts?
It’s very simple. When we don't control our thoughts, we crash.
And I’m sure we have all experienced a brain crash at some point.
Rumination and worry are correlated with anxiety and depression. What comes first is the difficult one. But according to this study, repetitive negative thinking may well lie at the core of the comorbidity between anxiety and depression.
So, if we don’t control our thoughts we risk being engulfed with anxiety and depression.
I used to work in child protection. On a daily basis, I dealt with abuse cases. If I gave way to the repetitive negative thinking train, I would be rendered useless. The only way we can work in a stressful environment and not be impacted is by owning our minds.
When we succumb to our negative thoughts, we lose drive, vision, passion, and optimism. We lose our sense of hope.
Without hope, we are almost worthless. In fact, hope is associated with better physical and psychological well-being, better social well-being, and less psychological stress. We must always be able to have hope. Hope for a better life for ourselves and those around us. And a corresponding faith that we can achieve this.
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5 techniques to control your thoughts
Are you even aware of your thought patterns? Do you recognize when you are being particularly negative? Do you currently try to change your thought process?
Someone close to me is going through a tough time. But she has pushed away everyone who loves her. I am impotent. I have wasted weeks on worry and rumination.
Now, for my own well-being, I must be able to switch my imposing thoughts off. Every morning I wake up and wonder if she is still alive. I have closed my brain off from this topic. It’s not that I don’t care. But self-preservation is essential.
Intrusive thoughts, negative thoughts, and rumination. These affect all of us at times. The good news is we can learn to train our brains. We can teach it to go to more positive thoughts instead of looking for the negative.
Here are 5 tips on how you can control your thoughts.
1. Thought-stopping and redirecting
Recognize when you have a negative thought and stop it. Pay attention and don’t give any more time to pursue the thought.
To stop it, you could purposefully think about something else to distract you. Or you could redirect the thought into a more positive light.
Thought-stopping has been proven to be a good coping mechanism tool. It's also something a lot of self-aware people do. When you're self-aware, you're able to catch bad thoughts before they transition into words.
2. Meditation and mantra
Learn to sit still and focus on quieting the mind. Meditation is a tool you can use to calm and balance the mind.
Let’s focus on mantras. Find a mantra you can relate to. Or make up your own. Sit quietly and repeat this mantra whilst focusing on your breathing. Invite positive energy and expel negative energy.
When we hum during our mantra or meditation practice, nitric oxide is released into the body, this helps muscle relaxation and blood flow.
3. Plan and prepare
Remove scope for unnecessary or repeated decisions by planning and preparing. This may be a week in advance or a day in advance.
For instance, you could select your daily outfits a week in advance and have them ready. Perhaps you could draw up a weekly meal plan. Figure out when you will squeeze your training into the day. Add any phone calls you need to make to your “to do” list.
When we plan our days and weeks, we remove all the intrusive thoughts of worrying about what we will eat, or wear. If we plan and prepare and update our diaries we can simply answer our intrusive thoughts with a “that’s all under control, now quiet”.
4. Relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques come in many different guises.
How about trying some simple breathing exercises? If you feel particularly overwhelmed with thoughts, take a few minutes to breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4. When we slow down our breathing and focus on breathing deeply, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system which helps to calm our body down.
One relaxation technique that I love the idea of is coloring in. Coloring in has been proven to reduce the fear in our brains. It is said to have a similar effect on our minds as meditation.
5. Read a book
I love reading. I don’t read as much as I would like, but I always read before I go to bed. I am a good sleeper and I don’t normally lie awake procrastinating or ruminating. Is this because I read?
If you struggle with intrusive thoughts whilst you are trying to get to sleep try reading. Escape into a different world and rid your mind of your thoughts.
Reading changes our brains, literally! Not only that, but reading helps us to:
- Be more empathetic.
- Expand our vocabulary.
- Prevent age-related cognitive decline.
- Reduce stress.
- Prepare us for a good night's sleep.
- Alleviate depression symptoms.
- Live longer.
And the good news is, it doesn’t matter so much what you read. Read anything you can!
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Not all thoughts are bad. But repetitive, negative, and intrusive thoughts can be crippling. We don’t need to accept this. Our thoughts do not have the right to control our well-being. When we take ownership of our thoughts we improve our well-being and evade a negative mental spiral.
Do you find the idea of controlling your thoughts intimidating? What's your favorite strategy to keep your thoughts in order? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!