A recent study showed that we have on an average 6,200 thoughts per day (Tseng, Poppenk, 2020). That is on average more than 250 thoughts per hour!
No wonder we often feel overwhelmed by them. It is not uncommon to hear people say “I can’t sit with my thoughts/ I can’t bear my thoughts”, and many of us resort to finding never-ending occupations / activities to distract ourselves from them.
While the above strategy is understandable, it might be worth considering a different approach and view of our thoughts. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about our thoughts:
Thoughts = truth?
The answer is no, or not always. Remember, “Just because we think it, it doesn’t mean that it’s true”. We can always take a step back to examine how accurate or realistic our thoughts are before we let them deeply affect our emotions and actions. The way we think is often influenced by many factors including past experiences, other people’s opinions / comments, isolated incidents, societal norms, yet they are not always factual or objective.
Thoughts = actions?
Sometimes we have thoughts that scare us. Obsessive and intrusive thoughts can be unsettling and limit the way we live. These thoughts may center on the fear of engaging in actions considered to be harmful, violent, immoral, inappropriate and possibly lead to anxiety, as a result. While these are understandably distressing, we need to recognize that “Just because we think it, it doesn’t mean that we will do it / it will happen”. There are steps that can be taken to mindfully defuse the connection between thoughts and action to allow us to process our thoughts in a healthier and more adaptable manner.
Thoughts = permanent?
While we might be used to a certain way of thinking, that doesn’t mean that it cannot be challenged / modified / re-structured. There are different unhelpful thinking styles that we can try to spot in the way we think. Some examples:
- Black & white / all or nothing thinking (e.g. the use of words such as “always, never, impossible, etc”) keeps us from seeing that life situations / people are complex, uncertain, and always evolving. This can be modified by thinking in the different shades of grey and using words such as “sometimes, maybe, it’s possible”, etc)
- Overgeneralization → does not allow us to view and respond to situations / challenges as isolated events (e.g. from “I am a failure” → to “That was a failed attempt, and I can learn from it”)
For more unhelpful thinking styles, please click here.
To summarize, some useful, quick questions that we can always use to process our thoughts are:
- How accurate is this?
- How realistic is this?
- How helpful is this?
- Is there another way of looking at the situation?
- What would I tell a friend in the same situation?
- Would it matter 5 years from now?
The practice of mindfulness can be very useful in helping us observe, co-exist with, and eventually befriend our thoughts.
Processing and reframing our thoughts can be time-consuming, tiring, and challenging at first. Hence it is helpful to allow ourselves a break and distance before responding to a situation / person. Just like any other skill in life, practice is necessary to make progress, hence we must remember to extend some patience and gentleness to ourselves in the process.