Whether it’s defensive or the truth, ‘I don’t know’ is a very common reaction to the question ‘what are you thinking?’ The two main psychological therapies used today are both based on the idea that people are influenced by their thoughts and that many symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression are caused and maintained by unhelpful thinking patterns. But this idea of metacognition (thinking about thinking) is foreign to a lot of people. Many people come to me knowing they’re feeling bad and not quite sure why – their circumstances don’t seem to warrant their feelings. Often the missing link is unhelpful thoughts. But how do you identify these thoughts?
Practical Exercises to Help Identify Thoughts
Sit down with a piece of paper/ blank document on the computer. Then, for three minutes, write down anything that comes to your mind. Anything – it could be thoughts about dinner, what you can see in front of you, how hard this exercise is. Stopping and consciously paying attention in this way is the first step to learning about our thoughts. As it’s actually almost impossible to not think for more than a few seconds, the challenge is just in learning to pay attention to those thoughts.
Grab a newspaper. Read the first story you see. Then think of how you feel after reading it –happy, frustrated, bored? These are your emotional reactions to the story. Now look for the link between the story and your emotional reaction to it. What thoughts connect the story and your emotion? For example, if the story is about asylum seekers being sent to Nauru and you feel sad, the thought might have been ‘people don’t deserve to be treated this way’. If you felt frustrated, the thought might have been ‘this government doesn’t know how to handle this situation’. If you felt happy, the thought might be along the lines of ‘these people do not belong in Australia.’ If you felt bored, the thought might have been ‘this makes no impact on me personally’. Keep practicing with new stories until you can identify your thoughts as you are reading the story.
Set a timer on your phone to go off throughout the day called ‘what are you thinking?’ When it goes off, notice what your mind was occupied with before it was interrupted.
Practice! The more you consciously stop and check in with your thoughts, the easier it gets.
How this helps
Changing your interactions with your thoughts can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, your relationships, anything. It works in three ways:
Knowing how we’re thinking helps us to understand why we’re having a particular emotional reaction to a situation.
Knowing what we’re thinking gives us the opportunity to recognise that our thoughts are not ‘who we are’. If we can observe our thoughts, then we can’t be our thoughts, we must be somewhat separate.
It gives us the chance to not believe our thoughts, and to opt to ignore or try to change them.
We tend to assume that our thoughts about something are the ‘truth’ of the situation, or at least represents our truth about a situation (e.g. with regards to matters of opinion, such as politics). This is not actually the case. Actually, thoughts are words which we can choose to believe or not believe, depending on whether or not they serve us.
Once you’re aware of your thinking, you can start to ask yourself ‘is this thought helpful?’ rather than focusing on whether a thought is ‘true’ or not. For example, maybe you’re overweight and want to lose weight. Thinking ‘I’m fat’ might be true. But if you can then ask ‘is it helpful to think that I’m fat?’ you gain a lot more power in the situation. It might be helpful (maybe that kind of thinking sends you rushing out to exercise), it might not (maybe that kind of thinking sends you rushing to the fridge). But by not automatically believing the thought, you have a choice about how you interact with that thought. If you decide it’s not helping you to reach your goal of weight loss, you can choose a new thought, or choose to distract yourself from that thought with another activity. And you can only do this once you’re aware of what you’re thinking.
The process applies to all sorts of situations. If you know what you want in life, then assessing whether or not your thoughts support you in getting it is critical to your success.
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If you'd like more information on how to work with your thinking to improve an aspect of your life that you're struggling with, book in for a private session with me. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.