There you are, trying your level best to focus on a project for work, but you keep thinking about a conversation from yesterday that didn't go your way. Maybe you envision it ending differently, with you delivering a mic-drop rebuttal. Meanwhile, the conversation wasn't even that important, and it's doubtful the other person has thought about it once since it happened.
Or you have an important presentation tomorrow and all you can think about are numerous scenarios wherein you make a complete fool of yourself. I can't do this. What makes me think I can do this? I'm going to let everyone down and do a terrible job.
Unwanted thoughts pop into/out of our heads frequently. Usually they just go their merry way, and sometimes we aren't even aware of them. Other times we're aware of them and we jump on them and go for a ride, allowing our thinking to take all manner of twists and turns. There's a point where we can lose awareness that this is happening—we are officially in mind wandering-territory. When we're still aware, it's more like daydreaming.
Then there are thoughts that have a negative quality to them from the start. From negative self-talk to catastrophizing to getting caught in a mental loop (i.e., ruminating) about one particular fear or worry. Intrusive thought and rumination are common during formal mindfulness practice, and likely just as common when we're not practicing, but we don't notice them as much because we're not intentionally on the lookout for them.
Practices for Handling Thoughts
Thoughts exist in our heads. Obvious, right? But we don't treat them that way. We treat them like they're real things out in the world and they're true and deserving of the attention we give them. But every thought you have is equal; they're all just thoughts. Once you genuinely level the playing field of thoughts, you've got some choices to make. You have to decide what to do with your thoughts. Here are five practices:
Tell the thoughts they're just thoughts and allow them to pass. That's just a thought. Okthxbaiiii, as the kids say. This is especially helpful for intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk. It might take some practice and feel weird, but if you think about it, the way we legitimize our every thought is what's weird.
If you think something bad is going to happen, rephrase your intrusive thought or rumination in the form of what you would like to happen rather than what you fear. Stay away from the words no or not, as your brain has difficulty processing them and visually depicting them. If you're afraid of crashing your bike during your triathlon, telling yourself you won't crash is less helpful than telling yourself about your awesome time and how good you feel during your event. Extra points for being specific about your performance and how you feel before and after it, as well.
As soon as you notice your thoughts, shift your focus to a neutral anchor point in your experience and rest your attention there. This is why the anchor point is referred to as a point of refuge. When the thought pops up again, go right back to the anchor point and don't reprimand yourself. Have compassion. Generating random thoughts is the brain's default mode, and there's nothing wrong with you.
As soon as you notice your thoughts, describe 5 things you see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This functions to move your attention and focus it on your present, sensory experience, thereby distracting it from . . . what was distracting.
Pretend you're a fly on the wall and narrate what's occurring, speaking of yourself using your own name or in the third person. This is called self-distancing, and it helps shift us from seeing our situation as a threat to seeing it as a challenge. Plus, it's a wonderful way to instantly remove yourself from the emotion of the moment. Mary has been ruminating about her presentation for a while. How long is Mary going to be at this? When is Mary going to get back to rehearsing her presentation? Or, Mary, get a grip on yourself and focus on your rehearsing rather than this nonsense. You can do this. (See Ethan Kross' Chatter for a thorough treatment of the voice in your head.)
Mindfulness invites us to acknowledge what's happening in our experience and work with it, thereby creating a brain that begins to break past patterns and replace habits that don't promote well-being.
Have a peaceful day.