Do you know those moments when one little thought unleashes an almost unstoppable chain of thoughts, sucking you in completely?
For the next 10 minutes your mind wanders around, creating fantasies and imagining scenarios in your mind. Meanwhile, a big frown appeared on your face, your heart rate has gone up, your shoulders got tense and you are stressed.
This is something that happens to all of us to one degree or another. As you have seen in The Power of Your Thoughts, you are in control of changing this. In the previous article the focus was more on situations and how you can change your attitude towards the situation.
But often thoughts seem to pop up out of nowhere – i.e when you are driving or when you are in the shower. And as soon as one of these chain-creating-thoughts arises they evoke a chain reaction, where the previous thought fuels the next one. I don’t know about you, but I am usually quickly overwhelmed by this and often don’t know how to stop this from happening. I just wait for the storm to pass.
Well, at least that is how it used to be for me. Over the years I discovered several simple ways to deal with even the most intense stressful thoughts.
When you are lost in thought it’s essentially your thoughts that create stress. In this case replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts is not the most effective method to become calm again. You see, thoughts are fuelled by thoughts. Any new thought, whether it is positive or negative, will often only make things worse.
It’s about becoming aware
The first step is to be aware that you are lost in thought. For now, it doesn’t matter what triggered the stream of thoughts or how it makes you feel. For now acknowledge that you are lost in thought. Don’t try to stop it, because that will perpetuate it. This sounds very simple, but it can be quite tough in the beginning. What I am claiming now sounds like a paradox – it probably is one. You might say, “I want to stop this stream of thoughts, so how is saying yes to these thoughts going to make them go away?!”
The thing is it is your very thinking that creates the problem. You are like a dog chasing it’s own tail. You are trying to think your way out of it, while it is the thinking that is the problem in the first place! The fundamental “problem” is not the thoughts in and of themselves, but your identification with those thoughts.
By allowing your thoughts to be as they are, you cut off its source of fuel: more thinking. Often it may seem as if your thoughts only become more intense by doing this, but that is just temporary.
When you notice that you are caught up in thought, the first and most effective thing to do is to focus on your breath. For ten deep inhalations pay attention to your breath. Notice that your thoughts are there, let them be as they are. After these 10 deep inhalations you should feel calmer already. The tension in your shoulders becomes less, your face becomes more relaxed and your breaths become deeper. This won’t make that stress go away completely, but you broke the pattern, which is a great start.
Depending on where you are and how much time you have, you can extend this exercise and turn it into a little meditation. Try to count to a hundred breaths or sit for 10 minutes. In my experience, just these 10 minutes of focus have a subtle, but massive impact on the rest of my day. There are tons of great meditation programs and apps out there that can help you integrate this into your day-to-day life.
I have been meditating for more than six years now, but I still make use of these programs, because it helps me maintain this healthy habit and to deepen my sense of peace and remove stress from my life more and more on a daily basis.
How to end the stream of thoughts
Meditation is by far the most effective and practical solution at any time, but there are other ways too like:
- Sports. Any kind really. High intensity workouts will have a quicker effect as opposed to lower intensity workouts. By moving, your body releases endorphins that naturally make you feel happy (you know, like “runners high”). So do some push-ups.
- Hobbies. Anything that sucks you in completely. For me woodworking is an excellent way to relieve myself of stress. When I am working on a woodworking project I lose track of time and my focus is on the task at hand and nothing else.
- Simple Tasks. Little tasks that can be done easily and have a direct result like: cleaning your room, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, knitting, chopping wood etc. It is rewarding to complete any task, whether it’s a big one or a small one. By doing small tasks like these you see the results immediately and it has the effect of completing many tasks in a row. (Well, you actually do. Every plat you wash is a mission completed.)
- Music. Listen to or make music. Especially classical music has that quality to slow your thoughts down and bring back peace of mind.
All these solutions have in common that they take away the focus from your thinking. They all have a meditative quality to them.
What NOT to do
We often try and escape from that intense, unstoppable stream of thoughts but indulging in various things like:
- Watching TV. This is a great way to run away from that stream of thoughts. The trick is that it seems to work. Your thoughts seem to disappear for a while, giving you temporary relief, but they are only pushed to the background by the TV. The TV kind of replaces your own thoughts for a little while. You have to be careful doing this, because when you are in this state of mind, anything the TV says will enter your subconscious mind without even being aware of it. Especially if it is the last thing you do before going to sleep! *
- Binge eating. That bag of chips or deep frozen pizza gives you something to look forward to. You get excited by the thought of eating and once you have, it gives you a temporary “yummie”-feeling, pushing away those annoying thoughts. But ten minutes after finishing your unhealthy “meal” you are back to square one: your stream of thoughts are back, only now you feel dirty-full too, but you still crave more food.
- Drinking. Alcohol is actually an easy way to stop that stream of thoughts. I believe that is a big reason why many people enjoy it so much. Your thoughts do disappear, that is why you become more loose and more confident; there are no thoughts to hold you back. The price you pay – unconsciousness – is not worth it though. I don’t mean passing-out-unconscious (obviously, that’s not good either), I mean falling below thought, regression. Whereas the meditative exercises take you above thought, alcohol takes you below it.
All these solutions are temporary fixes. They make you a bit happier by taking your attention away from the stream of thoughts for a little while, but soon your thoughts take the overhand again and you need to watch another episode of Modern Family. Meanwhile that stream of thoughts is still there, it is just masked and pushed to the background by the TV.
There are infinite ways to rise above your thoughts. What works for me does not necessarily work for you. Whatever you choose to do, it is about becoming aware of your thoughts, that is really the first and most and important step. Everything else naturally flows from here.
Experiment with it and find out what works for you!
* (I’m not saying that watching TV is bad all together. It is great to get completely sucked in by an exciting new episode of The Walking Dead every now and then, just like you get sucked into a good book. Just be aware that you make it a purposeful and rare occasion.)