C hange – Control Negative Thoughts
This is the second in a series of 6 blog posts on managing your fear of change or transitions.
In my blog post – “Why do we Fear Change if it is Just Part of Life” – https://www.triskeliontransitions.com/blog/ – I wrote about how the brain tries to control your fear of change. I also introduced you to the skills I encourage to help you manage that fear of change. In this post I will discuss the first skill in the method. C- Control your Negative Thoughts.
Negative thoughts can appear in many forms: harsh judgments about ourselves, comments from others (that rarely have anything to do with us), hypothetical thoughts about what could have been, worries about what might be…Negative thoughts can keep us safe. They’re why we look both ways before crossing the street. But they can also stop us from fulfilling our potential. In this blog post, I’ll help you discover ways to control the negative thoughts that are holding you back.
You’ve Probably Heard These Before
Do any of these sound familiar to you?
- “I’m stupid for staying.”
- “I will lose my home.”
- “I haven’t really worked except on a part-time, contract basis.”
- “I’ll lose my freedom to travel.”
- “I’ll lose everything that I love.”
- “My adult kids will either hate me or their father.”
- “I won’t survive and thrive.”
- “My future is bleak.”
- “I’m not good enough to make it on my own.”
First, let me tell you that you’re not alone. I’ve had these thoughts, too. All of them. And so have many, many other people. Second, let me tell you that you don’t need to dwell on these thoughts. How can you learn to control these negative thoughts? I’ll share some ideas with you.
The World Will End! Or Will It?
When our brains run away from us, we can’t run away from our brains: our negative thoughts follow us wherever we go. We start to see worst-case scenarios, and even though a tiny voice might tell us these scenarios will never happen, a much louder one continually tells us they might. We may try to silence that louder voice with a vice, which on the mild side can include an extra piece of cake and on the extreme side a drunken night of shouting at the people we love. However, did you know that there are peaceful ways to work with those thoughts and learn to control them that are also good for us and those around us?
You’ve likely heard about mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the here and now through the body, e.g., by focusing on your breath or closing your eyes and noticing what you hear. Meditation helps you practice mindfulness, which will become a tool you can use to dissolve those negative thoughts.
But My Negative Thoughts Re-Appear When I Meditate
That’s normal. Anytime we engage in a new therapy—either with someone or on our own—negative thoughts will arise. What you learn, though, through meditation is how to work with them. You’ve likely already learned by now that beating them back with a mental tennis racquet just vollys them back to you with a strong backhand. So, we know that tactic doesn’t work. Vices don’t get rid of them either, especially if you use your vice as that tennis racquet. In contrast, meditation helps you work with those thoughts and can ultimately help you dissolve them.
But did you know that there are many forms of meditation? You maybe just haven’t found one that works for you yet. I can only encourage you to keep searching. I’ve tried several forms myself and I’ll quickly share some of my experiences with you here.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to Help Control Negative Thoughts
This form of stress reduction is based on mindfulness and was developed by Jon Kabat Zinn of the University of Massachusetts. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, watch Kabat-Zinn’s 2-minute video where he defines mindfulness. Guided, unguided, mindfulness, and body awareness meditations (which include mild yoga poses) are a few forms this kind of meditation can take.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction helped me control my negative thoughts and pains in my body. In addition, it reduced my cortisol levels, which I believed were out of control from years of managing my unhappy marriage. One of the key attributes of Kabat-Zinn’s approach to meditation is practicing non-judgement. Remember that list of negative thoughts above? Those are judgements. Mindfulness-based stress reduction helps you remove those and find a more loving way to be with yourself.
Mindfulness as Meditation
In this form of meditation, you train your brain to concentrate. The goal is to use your senses to notice what you see, hear, and physically feel in the moment.
Start by taking several deep breaths to bring your attention to your body. Then gently open yourself up to what is around you:
- If a bird flies within your sight, momentarily notice it and say “see.”
- If a bird sings, say “hear.”
- If you feel yourself relaxing or tensing say “feel.”
If your brain starts feeding you random thoughts about next week’s meeting or last night’s argument, that’s okay! Just very gently, without judgement, bring yourself back to the present by noticing and naming what is right before you.
With practice you will be able to just notice those random thoughts as fleeting clouds without getting carried away with internal conversations about them. Your brain becomes more focused and you become better able to concentrate on the now, on what is in front of you.
One important benefit of this form of meditation is that you can practice it anywhere: at a traffic light, in a traffic jam, even in the shower. Just notice what you see, hear, or feel as you are doing everyday activities.
Mindfulness meditation really helped me see the beauty in everyday activities and helped me be more present to enjoy my kids, my friendships and my life in general. It promoted gratitude.
Unguided Breathing Meditations
In this form of meditation you only pay attention to how your breath feels as you inhale and exhale. When I practice this form of meditation, it helps if I start off by saying to myself, “Breath in, breathe out…”
Eventually, you naturally stop needing a vocal prompt and your mind becomes blank. If at any time random thoughts start popping in, just picture them as clouds on a windy day fleeting by, and bring your attention back to your breath. This may be the most difficult form of meditation but when it works, the feeling of nothingness is amazing.
Guided or Unguided Whole Body Relaxation
With this mediation you start by focusing on different areas of your body. Sit somewhere comfortably. A chair works very well. Start with your feet and gently tense or move the area and breathe in. As you breathe out, let go of the movement or tension in that area. Move up to your calves, thighs, abdomen, etc., until you’ve done this with your entire body.
Whole body relaxation is an effective way to slow your heart rate, clear your mind, and relax before going to sleep. I used this method regularly when my mind would not settle in the middle of the night as I reviewed all the scary, negative things (including judgements) about the life-altering change I was considering.
Books That Helped Me Control Negative Thoughts
We don’t learn in a vacuum. I encourage all my clients to continue reading to help them find the answers they’re looking for. Below are a few books I recommend to help control negative thinking.
- Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body, by Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) and Richard J. Davidson. This book does an extensive job of describing the science behind mindfulness-based stress reduction.
- Feel the Fear, by Susan Jeffers. This book is about affirmations and gratitude. Jeffers’s book helped me find my inner wisdom, to connect the hurt child that was deep inside me, to love that child and the woman she had become. The affirmation I used the most was “I am powerful and I am loved. I am powerful and I am loving. I am powerful and I love it.” Believing that you have power helps you control all those negative voices.
- Sex and the Seasoned Woman, byGail Sheehy. This is a book about women in their late 40’s + who left long marriages, survived, and became happier.
- Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I found this book inspirational, especially because the many similarities between our lives connected me so fully to her story.
Living in the Now Is Beautiful & Grounding
I used mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises to help me connect with the current moment, to really be present to what was right before my eyes. It opened up so many reasons to feel grateful:
- Two amazing adult kids I admire as humans, not just as kids
- An exciting life that allowed me to explore cultures and locations I would never have visited otherwise and that led to a very rewarding career as an expat coach and intercultural trainer
- A comfortable home
- Plenty of food
- Fabulous, supportive friends
- Family gatherings
- Recognition of the joys that existed in my life
- Gratefulness for those things that helped my heart to heal
Stop judging yourself harshly. Learning to focus on the present and accept yourself as you are is the first step to fulfilling the life-altering change you’re contemplating (or preparing you for the one that will come).
Just like there are many, many people out there who judge themselves harshly and therefore hold themselves back, there are also many who have learned to reduce their stress and embrace positivity through meditation and practicing gratitude. This is not a form of ignoring the bad that happens every day in the real world. Positivity is an approach to change, good or bad. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss how having confidence will bring you closer to embracing change.