How to manage repetitive thoughts
As we reach the end of another four weeks of lockdown, I’m conscious of how much time we are each spending alone, yet again.
The absence of social interaction – at every level from work to leisure – has left society scattered and remote.
Intrusive thoughts love the peace and quiet. Free from distractions, our brains can take over. What starts as our innocent internal voice, our ever present stream of consciousness, can turn on us very quickly.
I talked at the start of this blog series about how times of great uncertainty are anxiety’s biggest enemy. It’s proven that humans are actually able to cope better with the knowledge that something bad will happen, than the general uncertainty of what lies ahead. 2020 has been a tough year for our minds then!
We can’t escape our thoughts. We have about 70 thousand of them a day, in fact – even if we’re not consciously aware of them. But it’s vital not to let our thoughts take over. They don’t control us – science proves it.
Psychologist Dr Rick Hanson talks about the mind being like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive – a handy way of recognising how easily we can slip into noticing what’s wrong in our world, rather than focussing on what might be going well.
So let’s look at a few ways we can get a handle on our thoughts before they run away with us.
1. Remember thoughts are not facts
This sounds obvious but we all forget this at times. Just because we are dwelling on something doesn’t make it true – or more likely to happen. If we don’t remind ourselves of this simple fact, we can easily start to feel out of control.
2. Don’t try to ignore them, focus on managing them
Although it’s tempting to push intrusive thoughts away, it’s rather like squeezing a tube of toothpaste – they will make their way out some other way. So being aware of your thoughts and feelings is key. Try feeling curious about why you’re thinking the way you are, rather than being critical or condemning of yourself.
3. Distraction is a good resource
Once you’ve acknowledged your thoughts, it’s not a bad idea to distract yourself with something more pleasant. I think we’ve probably all had moments this year when we’ve been sucked into the doom and gloom narrative on the news and distraction is absolutely essential to stopping that cycle of catastrophic thoughts. Do something you enjoy, get out in the fresh air, exercise – whatever it takes to help you rebalance and recentre.
4. Practice gratitude
This can sound a bit ‘woo woo’ to the uninitiated, but it’s a good technique for changing a negative thought cycle. It doesn’t have to be verbose and dramatic – just a quiet noting of all that is good around you right now. Notice the tiny things you may often overlook: a beautiful sky, a comfortable pair of slippers, the soothing sound of the birds.
Finally, as your challenge this week, let me share a technique I came across recently which brings all this together. It’s called ‘Catch it, Check it, Change it’ and I found this on the Every Mind Matters website – another wonderful resource for support at this time. This is a way to manage your thoughts, by actively acknowledging and analysing them before reframing each to be more self serving.
Catch it – don’t ignore it. Take a good look at what you’re thinking and don’t just accept it.
Check it – now, do some research. Is this thought a fact? Is it true? Has it actually happened? Then move on to giving yourself sympathetic advice – think about what you’d say to support a friend in your position.
Change it – this is not about changing a negative into a positive: this isn’t always a helpful mantra. Rather, accept how you are feeling but recognise your fears are not reality and make a conscious choice to be more realistic, optimistic or to distract your attentions elsewhere.
Our thoughts should not control us – they are merely passing musings, so fleeting we often haven’t even properly considered them. Treat them as such.
I’ve been trying to be more mindful of my internal narrative over this second lockdown. I took a week off work and whilst it’s wonderful to have the time and space to get other jobs done and to spend quality time at home, sometimes a brain that’s used to being busy can struggle to fill the gaps. This is when intrusive thoughts can get a foothold in your mind, so I have been diligent in acknowledging and analysing my feelings, whilst focusing my attention on some more rewarding pursuits.
Do let me know if the Catch it, Check it, Change it technique makes a difference for you here . As a psychologist, I think it’s quite interesting. There is actually a lot of science behind simple three step tools like these – it comes under the practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which has decades of research dedicated to it. CBT (and other tools like it) enable us to rationalise our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, in order to put some distance from our thoughts and view them objectively, as mental events. Only then can we notice how easily we become enmeshed in overthinking, and how unhelpful that can be.
It’s not a magic bullet, but by simply taking the time to notice, acknowledge and then process your thoughts, you’ll be building your psychological and emotional flexibility – key to mental resilience.