In 1994, I was mid-way through completing my Master in Counseling. In the early part of June, I walked into Prince William Community Mental Health Center in Virginia, to start my counseling internship. This would be the first time I sat in front of a client, face to face, in the position of a therapist. For years prior, I had been volunteering at a crisis hotline, counseling anonymous callers seeking support in a crisis. Phone call support was quite different from the experience of sitting down, face to face, with another person. Needless to say, at the age of 22, I had a lot of negative thoughts going on in my head, a lot of doubt, fear, and anxiety. My clinical supervisor, Bill, a wise and insightful man, could see my mounting anxiety. He sat me down in his office and pointed to framed words on his wall that read,
Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.
Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior become your habits.
Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.
-MAHATMA GANDHI, Open Your Mind, Open Your Life: A Book of Eastern Wisdom
To say I was moved would be an understatement. I understood. My negative thoughts and insecurities was getting in the way of my abilities. Bill then looked at me and said, “You’ve got this, this is what you’ve been working toward, you are a therapist, they are here for your knowledge and support.” I made it through my first day of counseling, and often think back to the gratitude I have toward Bill and Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words, which now hang in my office at home, serving as a reminder of the power of our thoughts.
Our thoughts can be tricky. Thoughts are always with us, we can have them anytime and anywhere, and it’s challenging to make them go away. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, I can almost guarantee, you are thinking of a pink elephant now.
As a psychologist with training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I spend a significant portion of time in therapy educating and helping clients understand the power of thoughts. Our thoughts influence feelings and behaviors. The diagram to the left is a great visual. Feelings impact behavior and behavior impact thoughts and round it goes.
Here some interesting findings from research on our thoughts:
- People who are depressed have more negative thoughts about themselves, other people, the world and the future.
- A mood state, whether positive or negative, will impact the type of memories recalled. A person who is in a negative mood state will more readily recall negative memories whereas an individual in a positive mood state will remember positive memories.
- People who are under pressure with many cognitive demands have increased thoughts of dying, one of the most reported unwanted thoughts.
- Listening to aggressive and violent songs increased aggressive thoughts and feelings. (Research study of 500 college students listening to violent music lyrics, had more violent and aggressive thoughts.)
- Being engrossed in violent interactive video games may increase aggression.
- Most people report intrusive and upsetting thoughts; individuals with anxiety, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and worry, believe the invasive thoughts whereas those without can let the thought go.
Below are some suggestions on how to manage negative thoughts and shift into a neutral or positive mindset.
- Awareness is Key. Be aware of your thoughts. You don’t have to believe or listen to every thought that comes into your mind.
- Intrusive Thoughts Are Normal. Most people report unwanted or intrusive thoughts. If your thoughts are upsetting or disrupting your day to day life, then you need to reach out for support to a medical professional.
- Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is buzz word more common over the past several year. Briefly stated, mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment and being intentional about one’s daily behaviors. For example, mindful eating would be savoring your meal, slowly chewing your food and tasting your food, without multitasking, such as watching television or rushing around eating in the car.
- Observe Your Thoughts. An interesting practice that can be hard to do is simply observe your thoughts without having any attachment of belief. Instead of reacting to your thoughts, just observe them. I often use the analogy: thoughts are like ocean waves on the shore, they come in, and then they go out, replaced by another wave. Let them come in and go out, like waves in the ocean.
- Notice Themes. Are there repeating themes in your thoughts? For example, do you have thoughts about what others think of you, or body image thoughts (I’m too big, not attractive enough), or judging thoughts (I’m such a bad mom, I’m a failure at everything, Things come easier for other people, but not me).
- The Paradox of Negative Self-Talk. Ask yourself, would you talk to your friend like this? Your sweetie? Your child? If you say no, what makes you think its ok to talk to yourself this way?
- Challenge your Negative Thinking. Counter a negative thought with a question: Is this true or is this how I’m feeling now? Is there another explanation for why I am thinking this? Am I jumping to conclusions or attempting to mind-read what someone else is thinking or making assumptions and generalizations?
- Limit Multitasking. As seen in research, multitasking increases stress that can make one more vulnerable to negative thinking. It’s can seem impossible to limit multitasking when there is so much to do, however, small changes to do one thing at a time, can improve one’s cognitive and emotional well-being.
- Be Intentional. Be intentional about what you expose yourself to. For example, if you are fearful or anxious, then limit upsetting types of movies, music, media, and television you expose yourself to, especially during times of increased stress and pressure.
- Limit Time with Negative People. Who we spend time with will impact our overall well-being. Of course, it’s important to support family and friends when they are stressed, however, if you are consistently left feeling drained and irritable after spending time with them, you may want to consider limiting your time with them to protect and care for your own well-being.
- Schedule Time to Think. If you find yourself worrying or thinking too much, some research has shown its effective to schedule time later in your day or week to think about what’s on your mind. I often encourage clients to schedule “worry” time when engaged a positive activity like exercise or going for a walk.
- Meditate. For many people, meditation can help with managing thoughts and increasing mindfulness, or being at the moment. Meditation is not for everyone and can increase anxiety for some people. However, it is a great skill to try which pairs intentional breathing and mental focus that can be restorative and relaxing.
- Journal. Research has shown journaling can be an effective stress-relieving tool. What I love about journaling is that it forces one to write out thoughts and feelings that can look different on the written page versus floating in our minds. Seeing the written word can shift perspective and increase awareness.
- Seek Support. If you consistently have thoughts that are upsetting and disruptive to you day-to-day life at home, work and within relationships, then I would recommend seeking support from a mental health professional.
I hope these suggestions help you manage and limit negative thinking.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2016