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Note: This is a guest post by Albert Foong of UrbanMonk.Net.
How many thoughts do we have a day? Some studies have placed the number at 50000, others as high as 80000.
But the most shocking thing: most of these thoughts are negative, repetitive, and serve no real purpose.
It is no secret that your thoughts influence your effectiveness and your feelings, amongst other things. In short, they affect the quality of your life. Therefore, mental skills are not merely a luxury – they’re a necessity.
I’ve researched many manuals, ranging from cognitive psychology textbooks to ancient Buddhist sutras, and here I present the best techniques.
I’ve arranged them in three basic categories.
The first deals with minor distractions. The second handles stronger and more stubborn thoughts. The last works for all types of thoughts.
The First Category: Minor Distractions
This category contains quick fixes for minor annoyances. For example, you had an argument with your spouse this morning, and your anger is distracting you from the meeting you are in. You need to concentrate now.
1. Thinking of the opposite. This is a simple one. It stands to reason that most distracting thoughts are negative, and therefore have opposites. Simply reflect on the opposite – not just thinking about it, but feeling it as well. If you are angry, think of something happy. Your favourite nephew, or a happy place. Feel it with your whole body. If you are experiencing forbidden lust, then concentrate on their bad points and ugly features. The possibilities are endless.
2. Physical movement. Research has also shown that getting physical can allow you to “get out of your head.” If possible, leave the situation you are in. Ask for a toilet break and go for a stretch, or practice deep breathing (maybe not in the restroom, perhaps a corridor would be better, heh). If it is not a pressing matter, you might take a longer break and go to the gym to get a sweat going. Another good idea would be some music.
3. Think of the misery it causes. With this technique, you go a bit deeper. Look past the thoughts, and see what they are costing you. Really reflect on it. If you are distracted at work by anger from your morning argument, then see what it is costing you. Are you affecting your co-workers? Are you performing poorly? Are you endangering your job? Once you realise this, your resolve to stop thinking those thoughts are strengthened.
4. Distancing. This technique is simply letting your thoughts slide by without attaching to them. Realise that thoughts are just that: thoughts. They don’t have any power beyond what you give them. You don’t have to believe them, or act on them. Just acknowledge them, and let them go.
A good analogy would be to think of your mind as large blank white screen. Your thoughts are ants, scurrying across the screen. Don’t judge them, analyse them, condemn them, or hate them. Just watch them run across the screen – in one end and out the other. If you prod and play with them, they will lose their way and get stuck on the screen for a longer time than necessary.
The Second Category: Stronger issues
This category takes a bit more work and is recommended for thoughts that stem from bigger issues or are harder to remove.
As we have discussed, our thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked. Often, when we are feeling emotional, our thoughts about the situation become wildly distorted – and this cycles back into our feelings, and often our behaviour.
The key to both a mature response and a happy life, then, is to catch these distortions – giving us a realistic and optimistic outlook on life.
The three distortions are nicely summed up by Martin Seligman in his work, Learned Optimism.
1. Permanence. We think everything has a larger impact, time-wise, than it really does. We believe that a bad event will persist and continue to affect us.
A permanent thinker checks the scales after a week of failed dieting, and despairs. “I will never be able to lose weight.” A temporary thinker thinks differently. “I didn’t lose any weight this past week, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future.”
2. Pervasiveness. We think that the consequences of an event will spill over into the rest of our lives. It has a larger impact, space-wise, than it really does.
Bruce gets up to do a presentation at a big meeting, and he stutters in nervousness. If he was a healthy, specific thinker, he would have thought: “I got nervous once at a business meeting.” If he was a pervasive thinker, he would have interpreted it as: “I am not a good speaker, I am boring, nobody wants to socialise with me. Oh my god, is that why Elle turned down a date with me?”
3. Personalization. We take everything personally. We see insults where none were meant, or we take the blame for things that are not our fault.
For instance, Madison and Clark bump into an old friend, Peter, on the street, but Peter pretends not to see them and walks right past. Madison takes it personally; she thinks Peter doesn’t like her, or maybe she has done something to anger him. Clark thinks that Peter was probably late for an appointment and didn’t have time to chitchat.
Catching the distortions
A good method of applying this knowledge would be the three column method. You could write it down, but it is also easy enough to do mentally.
Simply get into the habit of monitoring your thoughts. Once you catch a thought, write it down in the first column. Next to it, write down the distortion(s) that you think apply. And in the third column, write down a healthy interpretation; one without any distortions.
The next time you catch yourself with a distorted thought, stop and replace it with your healthier interpretation. This is a skill that can be hard to master, but the results are worth it.
The Third Category: Using Force
The last group of techniques simply involves forcing the thoughts to stop.
The first such technique is the howitzer mantra. Prepare a mantra that works for you. The howitzer refers to the fact that it has to be forceful. Examples of these are: “Stop!” “Enough!” “No more!” “Lies!”
The moment you catch yourself with an unwanted thought, interrupt the chain of thoughts with your forceful mental exclamation.
Another version is to wear a rubber band around your wrist. Every time you catch yourself with a thought you don’t want, snap the band. It hurts a little, and you are also conditioning your system with mild punishment to realise that these thoughts hurt.
Eventually these conditioning methods will cause the thoughts to die down.
Albert Foong runs UrbanMonk.Net, a practical personal development blog that has enhanced the lives of many readers, moving them out of suffering and into a life of joy, love and success. It draws upon ancient spirituality, modern psychology, real life experiences, and everything in between.
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