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A thought on thoughts!

By: Bec Buist

What is a thought?

Have you ever stopped to think…”what is a thought”?  Most people haven’t.  And yet, we give thoughts so much power.

They influence our behaviour and literally shape our lives.  As science increasingly helps us unlock the wonder of the human brain, the invisible, bar perhaps a few pretty colours on an fMRI, phenomena we call thoughts are still a mystery.  We can be assured of this because, well, I googled it!!!

But reading widely, it seems the best we can come up with, (until further notice) is that thoughts are electrochemical reactions that occurs between the nerve cells (called neurons…there are roughly 100 billion of these) located within the organ encased by our skulls.  That’s it!  “Electro-chemical reactions”!

Everyone has them.  In fact, it is estimated we have between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day (though as you might imagine this is jolly hard to measure).

If this is true though this equates to a whopping 2100 thoughts per hour.  That’s exhausting to think about, right? Thank goodness many of these are in our subconscious mind. Using an iceberg analogy, that is the massive part of the iceberg hidden out of sight, under the water.

But just as the hidden part of an iceberg can wreak havoc on a ship (yes, we all know what name just popped into your head), those hidden, unconscious thoughts can significantly influence our lives.

Mind you absolutely everyone adds their own unique flavour to their thoughts, based on their genetics, innate personality traits, upbringing and life experiences.

Our thoughts can also be influenced by emotions such as sadness, shame excitement and pride as well as physical states such as tiredness, hunger and physical pain. I mean, you know yourself that your thoughts are a lot less benevolent towards the driver who cuts you off in traffic when you’re tired, stressed and decaffeinated.

One of the biggest, and freeing, revelations to my clients is that we ”are not their thoughts”.  Those “electrochemical reactions” inside our skulls may not even be true sometimes.

Instead they are merely our spontaneous “perceptions” of an event given covert physical, mental and  emotional factors.  Yet we are all too quick to act on our thoughts, without much….errr, thought!

For example, have you ever wasted time worrying a friend was angry with you because she didn’t respond to your text message, only to find out days later she had just forgotten because the kids had the flu, the in-laws were in town and Jeremy the pet hamster had just died.

So how do we stop the thoughts we don’t want?.

The bad news… We can’t!  The good news, we don’t have to.  Let’s break this down.  Anyone who has every tried to stop their thought stream know that it is near impossible.

Sure, things like meditation, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can slow down our thoughts, and are very effective, BUT ultimately you can’t STOP your thoughts.

It’s like they have a mind of their own…excuse the pun!  How cool would it be if you could turn on and off your entire thought stream with the click of a remote (until you lose your remote down the back of the couch).

But we can’t, and in fact the more we push our thoughts away the stronger they become.  To see this in action, humor me and try this brief experiment.

I want you to settle back in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and for the next 60 seconds NOT THINK OF A WHITE BEAR!!! (now if you have done this experiment a thousand times in your first year psych courses you’re welcome to move on to the advanced version and NOT THINK  of a white bear, wearing a pink sombrero and riding a unicycle).

For the rest of us, you can think of absolutely anything but DO NOT THINK OF A WHITE BEAR!!!  Ready GO!

How did you do?  How many white bears did you see?  One, two, a whole sloth (yes, a group of bears is called a sloth, who knew… well except maybe Mr Google)?

The reason you probably saw so many bears is because in order to NOT THINK about the white bear your brain had to continually scan for the a white bear to ensure you’re  not thinking of one.  Similarly, pushing  away thoughts such as “my boss hates me” or “I’m ugly” will likely only embolden them.

The Good News about negative thoughts

But first a quick recap…”YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHT!”  Thoughts are electrochemical reactions between neurons, they are influenced by everything from your great grandmothers genetics to whether you stayed up late to watch the playoffs.

They come and go as spontaneously as they like and lovvvvvvvve WHITE BEARS.  There are many good metaphors for understanding our thought streams.

One of my favourites is provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) who recommends viewing our thought streams as though we are standing in behind a waterfall.

From this vantage point we can stand back and just observe the water cascading past or make a conscious decision to stick your hand out and get wet (hopefully without being knocked off your feet by either the water or your thoughts).

Recapping on our second “A-HA’ moment? ”THEY MAY NOT BE EVEN REAL”, gives important perspective to the thought you’ve done something to tick your buddy off.

Without double checking, it is just as likely he hasn’t returned your text because he is ruminating over his own sloth of white bears.

So to the good news I promised.  “Negative thoughts are not all bad”.  Spontaneous thoughts like, “I’ve got to check I’ve packed the sun-screen for Disneyland tomorrow so the kids aren’t burnt to a crisp” or “I need to investigate better health insurance” (in general, not for Disneyland) are very useful, providing they don’t arrive at 230am.

Evolutionarily speaking, thoughts had a protective function.  They kept us safe.  The spontaneous thought to collect firewood, look for a new berry bush or usher your offspring into the cave because a predator was lurking, kept us safe and alive long enough to continue the species.

Sadly, many of these spontaneous survival thoughts seem to have been replaced with critical comparisons of other people’s social media posts, or disparaging thoughts about once close friends based on their political party preference.

But before leaving our prehistoric ancestors to their mammoth stew, it is worth highlighting one other inbuilt survival mechanism.  This is called the “NEGATIVITY BIAS”.

The negativity bias is ours brains natural propensity to recognise, and latch onto, something negative over something positive.  Again this kept us safe.

Our predecessors whose brains generated spontaneous, intense thoughts on how to escape charging buffalo faired better than those whose brains were totally captivated by the exquisiteness of the savanna sunset.

The teflon/velcro analogy could be applied here.  Our minds are often like teflon to positive thoughts and velcro to negative ones.  This is not an excuse to bury ourselves in negative thinking but rather a call to consciously assess the value of our automatic negative thoughts whilst actively, and intentionally, nurturing our positive ones.

There are a wide range of techniques you can use to “respond”, rather than just “react”, to your thoughts.  One such technique is what I call the “T.H.I.N.K test”.  The T.H.I.N.K test involves assessing the quality of your thoughts by asking yourself if the thought is…

True -play detective!  Look for evidence the thought is the truth. e.g. “Is your boss mad or tired?”

Helpful -Is retaining/reacting to a thought useful e.g.”I am stupid” doesn’t help exam prep.

Inspiringe.g. Thinking ,“I have overcome challenges before” could be motivating

Necessarye.g. Thinking, “I need to park in a lit area” could provide safety

KindIs this thought compassionate to myself or another? e.g. “We all make mistakes”.

For other great ideas on how to change your relationship to your thoughts, talk to one of the highly experienced counselors/coaches at Naya Clinics.   A little thought about our thoughts can help us house-train even the most recalcitrant of our white bears.

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