This week’s blog exploring the topic of our thoughts and busy mind, is written by guest writer and mindfulness coach, Bev Alderson.
I saw a quote one morning that read “nothing can trouble you more than your own thoughts”. As I sit down to begin this blog, I am having one of ‘those’ life periods. One that has the potential to leave my mind spinning, as much as all the plates I have in the air.
Right now, the only thing I want to think about is writing this blog. What are the chances of me being able to stop my thoughts, focus and achieve this? As owners of minds, we all have those times when our mind will not shut up. When it creates more trouble for us than the reality we face. When the noise of the past and the future drown out the present and suck the joy out of it.
Yes, I am having one of those times, but the good news is I know what to do about it! This blog is going to take a light look at the fabulous thinking mind and what practically can be done to reign things in a bit, when the mind is off on one.
“How do I Stop Thinking?”
In teaching mindfulness, this is a question I get asked all the time, so, let’s get this one out of the way up front.
“What are you thinking right now?”
Chances are that if you put a spot light on your thoughts they will stop, like a breath held for a brief moment. But it won’t be too long before another one comes along. Or you may start thinking that you are not thinking anything, which is of course in itself, a thought!
The reality is that you have as much chance of stopping your thoughts as you do stopping your natural breath, preventing your nails from growing, stopping yourself waking up in the morning, or hearing the sounds around you. One of the jobs of the mind is to think … and think it will.
However, whilst we can’t stop ourselves thinking, there is still a lot that can be done to claim back our minds, somewhat.
The Fabulous Thinking Mind
We apparently have around 70,000 thoughts per day. I am not sure who counted them but that works out at just over 2,900 per hour. Or put more simply, an awful lot. A penny for each one, as the saying goes, and we would all be wealthy indeed!
Isn’t it a relief that we are not aware of a big chunk of these? In many ways the thinking mind is just another function of the body and, like any other biological function, is busy working on our behalf and mostly below the level of our consciousness.
An infinite number of neurons are constantly firing in our minds, some of which we experience as thought. It is only when the mind needs us to pay attention, or things are not functioning as expected or desired, that we will be called upon to participate. Whilst it may not seem like your mind is always on your side, it is worth remembering that it generally does have your best interests at heart.
The mind is an incredible storage facility for our human genetic code, experiences, knowledge, and behaviours that help to shape who we are and how we experience the world. A facility that we can draw upon to support us through each day and to help us survive and thrive. An absolutely incredible piece of equipment, when you stop and think about it – excuse the pun! One that, like anything, has it’s great and not so great traits.
If you would like to take a deeper dive into the workings of the mind, you might like to check out “How the Mind Works” by Steven Pinker. A highly recommended, interesting, and informative read.
The thoughts we may be happy to keep
A lot of our thoughts are rather like white noise and, for the most part, we are unaware of the hum of internal chatter going on up there. Many of our thoughts are pretty useful too. They help us to decide what to wear and what to eat, what to do and how to do it. When you have the time and the inclination, you are probably okay to give your mind a bit of a free reign. Particularly to reflect on a previous or forthcoming happy event, or indulge in a harmless bit of daydreaming or fantasy. Then there are the thoughts that make you smile, or laugh out loud, as you recall a recent interaction or experience. Or are lapping up the joy of the present moment.
“If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely”– Roald Dahl
You are likely to also be quite happy when your mind’s stored knowledge comes up with a solution to a problem that was eluding you or a fabulous idea. When it makes you look smart, clever, or funny. And then there are those moments in life when our mind keeps us out of harm’s way or gets us out of a tight spot.
You are okay with all of these types of thoughts, most of the time, right?
The thoughts we may be happy to lose
So, if we don’t mind the white noise, the useful or happy thoughts – then what are the thoughts we want to stop, or at least lessen their grip on us?
Here are a few thoughts, again, excuse the pun!
- The thoughts that go over every possible scenario of a forthcoming event
- The mean-spirited ones that may be directed at yourself or others
- When the mind is going over and over a conversation that didn’t go your way
- The story telling mind that never lets the truth get in the way of its good stories
- The bossy mind that keeps us to task like the worst boss you could ever conjure up
- The emotionally charged ones that make us want to strike out with words or worse
- The mind that keeps running over to-do lists at 3am in the morning
- The really loud ones that won’t allow us to focus or to rest
- Thoughts that make something seem so overwhelming that we feel paralysed to act
You get the idea, right?
Like with most things, we tend to focus on the bits we don’t like or want. But the mind is not all bad, far from it. It is actually an incredible piece of kit that comes with some pretty amazing functionality. It is generally only when our thoughts become a bit too loud, get stuck on repeat or begin to rob us of our daily effectiveness, wellbeing, or enjoyment of life, that we are likely to want to intervene.
Taming the Monkey Mind
|“I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind. The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined. You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions” – Elizabeth Gilbert|
If you will recall, stopping thought is pretty much a futile goal. One of the jobs of the mind is to think and think it will, which we have seen is both a negative and a positive. So, where does that leave us, when our monkey mind is all over the place and we are struggling to get things done and get the most out of each day?
It leaves us with a choice. We can either sit back and watch, get dragged away by the emerging chaos, or we can take steps to intervene.
Let’s take a look at some tips and techniques that you might like to try, next time your monkey mind is in full swing. I recommend you pick the ones that resonate, and practice them until they become a natural habit that you turn to, as needed. Adding more strings to your bow, if and when you would like too. There is no one size fits all and not every technique will work every time, so it is good to have a few up your sleeve. Whichever options you decide upon, the first thing I would always recommend you do, when you notice your mind is up to its monkey tricks, is to hit STOP…
The STOP Principle
A simple yet effective tool that can help to put a stop, or a pause, between a situation and your reaction is called the Stop Principle.
It can also be a useful tool that can help to put a stop, or a pause, between your thoughts and a situation.
When the mind is overtly loud, busy or re-running the same scenario – hit the stop button and follow the steps below.
|Ø Stop – visually hit the stop button
Ø Take a Breath – a full conscious inhale and exhale
Ø Observe – what is happening and why is it causing you to react?
Ø Proceed – choose your response
Here are eight ideas, on how you may choose to proceed…
- GIVE YOUR THOUGHTS AN AIRING
For those of you that have ever tried to turn away a 2-year-old child who wants your attention, you will know that most attempts to avert them will be futile. If your mind is spinning wheels, it will be as demanding as an attention seeking 2-year-old, and most attempts to avert it will also be futile. You may as well give your thoughts an airing.
If you try to ignore them, they may get louder, even outrageous – 2-year-old temper tantrum anyone? You may recall that the practice of watching your thoughts may result in them going quiet? However, if you sit with your thoughts for a while, they may begin to overcome their apparent shyness.
Another technique you may like to try is to put pen to paper. Journaling, proactively or reactively, can be a powerful practice in bringing your thoughts to the level of your awareness. On a side note, you may like to keep a notebook by your bed to jot down any thoughts that may be disturbing your sleep, so that you can put them aside until morning.
Both watching and journaling thoughts aim to help you better understand, process, and respond to them in a more conscious way.
Whichever method you choose, observe both what is happening in your mind and in your surroundings, as this may also identify your triggers.
Here, we may have an opportunity to address what caused the monkey mind to kick off in the first place. For instance, if you observe you get triggered when you are doing the house work you may be able to 1) avoid it, 2) change the way you do it or 3) think about it differently:
- Hire someone to help with the cleaning.
- Make it fun by listening to an upbeat playlist and perhaps dance your way around the house!
- Reframe your thinking so that you see housework as exercise and an opportunity to burn a few extra calories.
- TURN THE VOLUME DOWN
When thoughts get really loud, they can take over and drown out everything else. When this happens, you might like to try asking yourself, “can I turn the volume down”?
A useful tool for those dentist chair moments in life! For those of you that are visual, you may like to conjure up an image of a volume switch and visualise yourself actually turning the volume down. Or you may like to ask your inner Alexa to do it..!
- THOUGHTS ARE NOT FACTS
Thoughts are thoughts and simply calling this out to yourself may be beneficial in putting the brakes on an unhelpful thought pattern. It is easy to get caught up in our own stories, and believe our own inner press, but thoughts are not always factual. As mentioned previously, our minds don’t always let the truth get in the way of good story.
Take comfort too that we humans all have a monkey inside our mind, that sometimes behaves like a delinquent 2-year-old, not just you. Sit on public transport of an evening and you can literarily watch the thoughts spinning on your fellow commuters faces, as they re-live their day or prepare for the evening ahead.
When you next catch your story telling mind in action, try imagining a good friend is relaying the story to you. What would you say to them? Hopefully you would hear them out and perhaps call them out – in a loving and supportive way, of course.
- INTERRUPT YOUR THINKING
Implementing a pause in your day, comes with many benefits to our effectiveness and wellbeing. One of which is that it provides us with an opportunity to interrupt our thinking.
Left unchecked, thoughts can run us and our day ragged, leaving us unproductive and exhausted. Spinning wheels, getting nowhere, and beating ourselves up along the way.
Stopping and observing what the mind is up to, enables us to reign things in a little, if needed. To make better choices for ourselves and in our thinking. Set a timer, for perhaps mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and have a catch up with your thoughts.
- BROADEN YOUR PERSPECTIVE
I have heard stress likened to being in the audience at the circus, in that you tend to get drawn to one, or a few, performers. With the rest not making it into the realm of your awareness.
Thoughts can be like this too and can similarly see you losing sight of all the other wonderful performers, and performances, happening in your daily life.
If you find your mind fixating on one thing, take a look at what else is going on for you– as a way of broadening your perspective.
Look to your actual surroundings, your daily life, and to your senses, in painting a picture of a more realistic here and now.
- LEAN INTO GRATITUDE
Not in an ‘everything is hunky dory’ kind of way but in a way that draws your focus away from the whirl of the mind, to something more positive.
You don’t want to be having a rubbish day and pretending everything is fine though. This is likely to result in an inner tug of war, with team 2-year-old winning hands down.
It is okay to have a challenging day and not be able, or willing, to shift your state.
If you observe you are having a difficult time of things, inwardly or outwardly, first acknowledge this and then, if appropriate, consider shifting your mindset by leaning into gratitude.
You can do this by reflecting on, or journaling, the many things you have and regularly receive. Shining a super trouper light on all that you have to be thankful for in your daily life, whilst balancing out the mind.
- PRACTICE MINDFULNESS
One of the biggest misconceptions around mindfulness is that, in order to practice it, you need to be able to quieten your mind. Many of you are probably already practising mindfulness, even if you don’t realise it. Painting, spending time in nature, playing music, actively listening, singing, eating without distraction etc.
These are all mindfulness practices, that give rise to the opportunity to be with our thoughts – to zone in rather than zone out. The mindfulness practice of meditation itself teaches us to direct our thoughts to a single point of focus – for instance the body, the senses, the breath, or the mind itself.
When the mind wanders, which it may do more times than we dare to count, we simply observe and acknowledge where it has gone and bring it back to the meditation practice. The purpose is not to stop thoughts. However, with a regular mindfulness or meditation practice, you may observe that:
- By drawing attention to your thoughts, you get to know them a little better and have an opportunity to tend to them
- You are able to take a step back and observe your thoughts rather than get carried away by them
- You may be able to slow down the stream of thoughts and/or turn the volume down a notch or two
- You are able to practice being still and quiet, bringing more of this into your daily life
|“The Mind is like water. When it is turbulent it is difficult to see. When it is calm, everything becomes clear” Prasad Mahas|
- PRACTICE BREATHING
Lifestyle factors such as sitting, stress, and perhaps a bit of vanity, can see us limiting the breath by holding the belly in. As too can a busy mind. Deep abdominal breathing is our optimal way of breathing and one that comes with some key benefits, for the thinking mind.
Belly breathing has been proven to elicit the body’s relaxation response, which is the opposite aspect of the nervous system to the stress response. As part of this process, a signal is sent to the brain and endorphins are released, which triggers a natural calming effect to both the body and to the mind.
Here’s how to do it:
- Sitting, standing, or lying down with a lengthened spine, relaxed shoulders, and face.
- Close your eyes or gaze to one point
- Place your hands on your belly so that your middle fingers are touching
- Inhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly rises and the fingers separate
- Exhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly deflates and the fingers come back together
- Aim to do 5 – 10 rounds, or more
A great exercise, you can practice anytime and anywhere, to bring the body and mind from stressed to relaxed and from busy to calm.
Seeking further support
We all have ‘those’ life periods, or experience thoughts and emotions, that can be hard to swallow at times. The thoughts, tips, and techniques that I have shared are from my experience in working in wellbeing, and those I personally find supportive in my daily life.
However, if we feel unable to manage things ourselves, I am a huge fan of seeking the support of a medical professional or therapist. If you need a helping hand to manage or process a current situation, or your thoughts around it, then I highly recommend speaking with your GP. They may be able to refer you to or recommend someone in your area.
The work of the mind is to think and think it will. It is generally only when our thoughts become a bit too loud, get stuck on repeat or begin to rob us of our daily effectiveness, wellbeing, or enjoyment of life, that we are likely to want to take a holiday from our own minds. I hope this blog provides a basic insight into the workings of your mind, along with some practical ideas on how you might go about reigning yours in, should you wish and need to. Happy thoughts.
Bev Alderson is a Mindfulness, Yoga and Stress Management Consultant who works with individuals, groups and workplaces.
Having spent 18+ years in management in the IT industry, in both the UK and Australia, Bev learnt first-hand the impacts of a high-pressure environment and lifestyle and how, left unchecked, this can negatively impact performance and health.
Today, through her business Practically Balanced, Bev brings authenticity to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga and more.
Bev completed a Diploma in Yoga with the highly respected Qi Yoga School in Sydney in 2012 and with Sivananda in India in 2015. She also completed a Certificate in Stress Management with the London Centre for Coaching and Counselling in 2014, an ILM with the Stress Management Society in 2014 and a Diploma in Meditation with the British School of Meditation in 2016.
With many thanks to Bev for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Amanda via e-mail or phone:
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team