The average person thinks 70,000 thoughts per day.
Our mind can feel like our best friend — or our worst enemy.
It’s our friend when it has a task to fulfill. This sense of purpose streamlines our thinking, making it lucid and focused.
It’s our enemy when it’s left unattended. Like a puppy, it’s prone to wandering off in all sorts of directions:
… Why you and your partner had an argument, when your bills are due, why your flatmate said something in a passive aggressive tone of voice…
These are thoughts that float to the surface in moments of stillness: before bed, brushing our teeth, on the subway. Without a focal point, our brains default into repetitive worry rather than happy musing.
A Harvard study explored this and the verdict was clear:
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
So how do we deal with meandering thoughts? Can we tame them, or train them into more positive thinking?
First, we need to establish something very important:
We are not our thoughts
Would you let your haircut define you? Or the length of your legs? Probably not.
But it’s trickier with thoughts. They live in our heads. Because of that, it’s easy to identify with them.
“The primal brain doesn’t know the difference between a thought and reality.”
explains health and community psychologist, Marny Lishman.
This is known as cognitive fusion. We look “from” our thoughts instead of “at” them.
We feel like we are our thoughts.
So we behave as if:
- Thoughts are reality — what we’re thinking is actually happening.
- Thoughts are truth — we believe them.
- Thoughts are wise — we assume they know best.
In fact, our thoughts are super flakey and unreliable. They’re mostly fleeting scraps of consciousness that we project random external factors onto, like:
Hunger, tiredness, being unwell, what we ate yesterday, what we’re watching on TV… these temporary states have a huge impact on what goes on internally.
Clearly, these factors fluctuate as quickly as the weather. And like the weather, they can be stormy or sunny for no apparent reason.
Remember: our thoughts are not real. They only become real if we choose to act on them.
Can I stop thinking?
The short answer is no.
In fact, the more we try and shut thoughts down, the louder they will get.
It’s like being told not to think of a pink elephant — what pops into your mind’s eye? Shutting off our mind completely is about as easy as amputating an imaginary limb.
But that doesn’t mean we are powerless. We can’t control our thoughts, but we can choose how we relate to them.
Author and blogger Pam Grout captures this perfectly:
“Your thoughts are like harmless ants marching across a picnic blanket. They come, they go, they quickly flow right through until . . . you decide to gather them up, stare at them, and transform them into your reality.
It is our attention to our thoughts that pull them into our reality. We decide which thoughts to feed, which thoughts to empower.”
The choice is ours.
We can’t ‘see’ our minds (in the way that we can see our legs).
We are only aware of them on a mental level. They feel unique to us. And so, they become intertwined with our sense of self like velcro.
How can we separate the two?
Acknowledging our thoughts is the starting point to freeing ourselves from their compelling power.
It sounds small and simple. But it’s huge.
The moment we acknowledge our thoughts, we step away from them. We build a divider, cut the cord.
And then, we have a choice. Are we going to engage with these thoughts?
Or are we just going to let them do their thing, while we get on with our lives?
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Meditation isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.
But sitting with your thoughts can be a very useful practice to acknowledge our thoughts — no religious or spiritual affiliation required.
Studies have shown the effects of meditation on brain function and brain structure. It de-activates the ‘me centers’ of the brain.
These areas are active during invasive, unhelpful thinking centered around ourselves:
“If I’d stayed at work later, I would have gotten that promotion” or “I’m sure my husband doesn’t love me anymore.”
There are many different kinds of mindfulness practices, but the ones I’ve encountered have the same principles at heart. And they are very simple.
You sit still and embrace the power of doing nothing at all.
That means you refrain from acting, or acting out.
It also means you create a space in which it’s easier to hear your thoughts, and become aware of your feelings.
When you sit still, quietly, thoughts and emotions will visit you.
You notice them, and you train your mind not to get caught up in them.
Most meditation practices offer a support for this. It may be your breathing, or a candle, or the sounds around you — anything that transports you from your headspace into the present.
These offer a place to shift your attention to the moment you notice you and your thoughts get tangled up.
You can explicitly acknowledge your thinking when you see it happen, by silently saying ‘thinking.’ You mark that you’ve noticed. Then you shift your attention back to the present.
Then it happens again. No worries. You mark it. You shift your attention.
Your mind won’t suddenly go all quiet. Your thoughts will still be chatting away.
The difference is, you’re not listening, you’re observing non-reactively.
Over time, our thought processes become deeply etched into the neurons in our brains. When certain brain pathways are repeated, these neurons begin to fire information in a quick, interconnected sequence.
When one thought starts, the whole sequence gets activated, like a set of dominoes.
We can’t change the gut-level instincts that our minds and bodies produce; but we can observe them: you’ll notice that certain thoughts always trigger others.
So, when your mind embarks on a negative sequence, notice it with lighthearted curiosity. Then, gently pull it back to the present.
This simple action — moving your mind back to focus, over and over and over again — will strengthen like a muscle.
Over time, you will develop new pathways that don’t lapse into unhelpful thinking.
Slowly but surely, your brain will rewire itself.
Voice your fears
Many people grow thinking we should keep our fears locked away.
Voicing our fears lets us process them. Letting them bounce endlessly around in our head does the opposite.
We can’t appreciate the true beauty of a work of art from 2 cm away. And we can’t see clearly when we examine ourselves from one angle only.
Opening up a dialogue lets others contribute to our narrative; they are better-placed to be objective, as they can see us from a distance.
Psychologist Todd Essig Ph.D. explains:
“From the earliest exchanges between infants and parents, a self grows in relationship with those around them. So too is the case in adulthood. We come to know ourselves in dialogue with others.”
Overly-detailed introspection is dangerous because it’s a closed system. This obsessive, ‘late night’ thinking makes things seem much worse than they are, like a spooky shadow cast against a wall.
When we turn the light on, we realize it’s just an old dressing gown.
Expose fears for what they really are: just thoughts.
Then move on.
Get in touch with your senses
We get caught up in the drama of life: breakups and makeups, new jobs, birth and death, tragedy and joy.
We reminisce over occasions in the past and plan for those in the future.
This keeps us locked out of the present.
These big, important moments serve as life’s architecture. Meanwhile, little, but equally important moments are in danger of getting lost in the cracks.
According to research, 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetics. Another 10% is determined by our circumstances: that’s why you see children smiling in the slums, and having tantrums in Trump Tower.
And the remaining 40% relies on our attitude. That leaves a ton of room for maneuver.
Getting our full 40% isn’t fancy, or expensive, or complicated.
We just need to pay attention to our senses.
Right. This. Second.
The crispness of fresh sheets. The taste of our coffee. The warmth of a hot bath after a long day. The sun on our back.
These joyful little moments get lost in the bland tedium of everyday life.
Notice them, appreciate them, feel them.
As soon as you do, congratulations! You’re living in the present — not inside your head.
The ability to step out of your head and into the world is around you is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be cultivated.
A busy mind can feel like a dark, scary place if left untethered.
But just remember, you have a choice: not on whether or not to think the thoughts, but on whether to engage with them.
Like mindless chatter on a busy bus, you can zone out, good-naturedly, until you hear something worth listening to.