Negative thoughts and the mind
Unhealthy thoughts come in many different forms: depressing thoughts, anxious thoughts, guilty thoughts, painful memories, dread of the future, self-judgments, obsessions and suicidal thoughts. Their variety is, in fact, endless. And this fact points to something important about the human mind: that it is a thought-generating machine (it is estimated that the average human brain generates over 6000 thoughts a day). This can sometimes feel overwhelming.
As human beings our weakness (or flaw) is that we take too many of these thoughts at face value. Some thoughts are related to facts, while others convey some good ideas. But those are in the minority. The majority of our thoughts are actually ‘fake news’: worries, fantasies, half-baked judgments, distorted ideas, misleading stories about the past, and apocalyptic visions about the future. Yet we accept these harmful thoughts with the same reality that we do the useful ones.
One reason for this is that disturbing thoughts can be upsetting. And because they scare us we assume they must be conveying something important. In fact the opposite is true: the more anxious or depressing a thought is the less likely it is to be grounded in fact.
All this points to the conclusion that we are most of us in a wrong relationship with the mind, an insight that informs the teaching of the Buddha and, before him, Indian philosophy in general. This wrong relationship arises when we misuse consciousness and identify with each and every thought, instead of exercising discrimination. One key mistake is to say ‘I’ to the thought, or to call them ‘My thoughts’. Instead, learn to see thoughts as entirely separate from you, rather as if they belong to someone else rather than yourself.
In this article we will explore negative thoughts in particular, and how to see them for what they are. Going on to defuse from them, and refocus our attention on the thoughts that serve us. For the mind is a good servant but a bad lord.
How negative thoughts work
Let us start by looking at the different types of negative thoughts:
- Spoken thoughts. These sound like there is someone in your head delivering a message. Or, if it is a habitual thought you might Thera it as ‘I am X‘, or ‘I can’t Y’, etc. These thoughts trigger feeling-states of different kinds: anxious, depressing, guilty or despairing. Thoughts like these are often about mistakes you just made, or catastrophic predictions of what might happen next.
- Running commentaries. These are monologues associated with the ego, or the internal judge. Offering you a step-by-step commentary on your flaws, weaknesses, failures and general hopelessness.
- Imagistic thoughts. Most often, these are either distorted memories, or else images of something bad that is about to happen – rather like seeing scenes in a crystal ball.
- Background thoughts. Thoughts like these can be hard to access. Some of them are embedded in our way of life, rather like the Highway Code we absorbed when we learnt to drive a car. Forming semi-conscious assumptions about life. Namely, that it is alarming, lonely, overwhelming, frustrating or pointless, etc. These thoughts are typically based on early conditioning and act as filters, distorting everyday experiences, and giving them a negative twist.
It can take some detective work to uncover some of these background thoughts, and psychotherapy may be of assistance here. However, you can learn to uncover some of these thoughts by yourself by inference. For example, if you regularly react to setbacks with agitation the underlying thought might be that you are insecure, or fragile.
Discriminating negative thoughts
Provided you have developed a power of conscious attention through mindfulness, it can be surprisingly easy to discern the difference between unhelpful and helpful thoughts.
Negative thoughts are painful, restrictive and demoralising. Leaving you feeling weak, stuck, confused, trapped and hopeless. The accompanying feeling state is nearly always unpleasant: agitation, despondency, anxiety, depressed mood.
Good thoughts, by contrast, are comforting, liberating, insightful, empowering and strengthening. Opening you up to new possibilities and solutions. They may come with feelings of relief, peacefulness, and joy.
By paying close attention to the feeling states that come with your thoughts you are in a position to discriminate. If the feeling is uncomfortable that is your cue to set that thought aside.
Looking AT negative thoughts rather than ‘through’ them
The secret is not to fight negative thoughts, or hide away from them. Doing this only gives them more power over you. Rather, you should learn to look at them neutrally. As one thought amongst the six thousand you have each day. Or else seeing them as a throng of voices all competing for your attention. Some are worth listening to, some not.
Bear in mind, also, that many thoughts are produced in the brain through association. Sometimes negative thoughts follow on one from another in a logical chain; other thoughts are associated with people and situations; while others float up from the brain quite randomly as one event triggers another neural event in the brain. Looking at thoughts this way helps you to see them that many of them are just ‘passing through’, and that you don’t have to do anything about them.
If you do happen to fuse with negative thoughts you will instantly feel an unpleasant charge. Thoughts that come with a strong charge (such as panicky feelings) are known as ‘sticky’ thoughts. Quite often they are deep-seated ego-judgments you have been fusing with for a while. They feel sticky because, while alarming, they appear to be true. But no thought is ever completely true so you may want to examine them more carefully for their accuracy and helpfulness.
Whether thoughts are sticky or not you don’t have to identify with them. With practice you can learn to see them as distant voices rather than intrusive thoughts.
Defusing from unwanted thoughts
Once you have established discrimination you are in a position to separate away from the thoughts that do not serve you. Here are some steps that will help you do that:
In a mindful state notice how negative thoughts come up in consciousness, without identifying with them.
Practice acceptance. Your thoughts are all part of human experience, as are the feelings that come with them. There is nothing remarkable about them and they are what they are – just thoughts.
If you inadvertently fuse with them notice, also the feeling state that comes with them.
Mentally step back from the thought by seeing it as a voice you might hear from a radio station or TV channel. If you are having an anxious thought think about is as coming from ‘Panic FM’. Or a depressed thought as coming from ‘The Depression Channel.’
Now name the thought. You can give it a neutral name, a funny name, or a boring name. Say it out loud if you can:
“That Downer thought is back again…”
“It’s Basil Fawlty on steroids…”
“More tedious predictions. I really don’t have time for this…”
When you have neutralised the thought you are in a position to defuse from it. There are several Defusion techniques you can use. Here are three of the most popular:
Turn off the Radio/TV station.
Turn the thought into a cloud or a balloon and watch it drift up into the atmosphere.
View the thought as one amongst many moving by you in cans on a conveyor belt, and turning back into the factory for reprocessing.
Still in a mindful state of present moment awareness, consider what is really important to you to do right now. Fixing a problem? Talking things through with someone? Getting on with project that excites you? Going to a social event? Developing peace of mind?
When you have identified an option, wait for some helpful ideas and possibilities to emerge – related to things you can get going on now (these new thoughts should appear naturally as you refocus on something positive).
When you have completed that go ahead and refocus. Keeping as busy as you can so that your conscious attention is entirely on your new task.
For podcasts on mindfulness and thought defusion click on the link below: