One of the most immediate and effective ways to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety is to pay more attention to the thoughts that are constantly running through our minds. When we are experiencing thoughts that are very negative or self-depreciating, it can seem like the best idea is to tune out from them or push them away. As it turns out, this isn’t actually the most helpful approach.
It can feel counter intuitive to tune into your negative thoughts. In reality though, we do better when we make an effort to be conscious and aware of what we are thinking. Whether we’re tuned in to our thoughts or not, they will still have an impact. We are much more able to reduce these impacts when we pay attention to our thoughts and examine them consciously.
It can be particularly helpful to consciously tune into your thoughts when you notice a negative shift in your mood or an increase in anxiety. In this moment, pause and reflect, and ask yourself what you were just thinking about. These are valuable moments when we can catch our thoughts in their tracks, bring them to consciousness, and address them.
You may notice that the thoughts you catch in these moments can be extremely negative. You may feel shocked at the level of meanness or harshness you hear in these thoughts. These types of negative thoughts tend to draw on our insecurities and weaknesses, our fears, and our worst case scenarios. They are not balanced and they are not fair.
When you stop to consciously consider and evaluate these thoughts, you will most likely recognise that you would never speak to anybody else in the same way, because it would be unreasonable, unfair and mean. Similarly, if someone else said these things to you, you would likely feel deeply hurt or offended. For all of these same reasons, saying these unfair, negative and punitive things to ourselves produces the same emotional outcomes, such as depressed mood and anxiety.
So, what do we do once we notice that these patterns are occuring?
First, we need to notice our thoughts, take note of them, and not just block them out. We need to hear what the voice has got to say. Once our conscious mind hears and considers these words, we are able to take a very different perspective to them.
When we fully and consciously recognise how extreme or mean our thoughts are, we are more able to separate ourselves from them. In these moments, it’s important to introduce balance and fairness. For example, if our mind is saying “I hate myself”, try to re-frame this negative and absolute though, and reconsider it as “I am unhappy with my current situation”. If our mind is saying “I am worthless”, try to reflect from deeper place and know that this is untrue and unhelpful, and certainly not as extreme and conclusive as what our mind is telling us.
Once we are able to separate from these extremely negative perspectives we can reduce the emotional impact of the unhelpful thoughts. People can be very inclined to ‘fuse’ with their thoughts, interpreting them as truths and absolutes. When we examine our thoughts with objectivity, we are no longer fused with the thoughts and can contemplate a much broader view. Yes we may have just messed something up majorly, but does this mean we are completely hopeless or useless? Our deeper self is able to see that while no one is perfect, we all have our weaknesses, but, overall we have many good aspects and strengths too. We might still feel upset that we have done something regrettable, or failed at something, but that is very different from the feeling that comes when we are fusing with a thought that we are worthless or completely hopeless.
When you are trying to un-fuse from unhelpful thoughts, take a deep breath and try to feel more present in your body, and less invested in your head. It helps to be looking at the thoughts from the outside in rather than from a point of complete enmeshment with our mind, in that moment.
While these ideas may seem very simple, in reality it can be difficult to change long established patterns and habits. Psychologists know many clever tricks to help retrain any mean or negative habits of the mind. Having some sessions with a psychologist can greatly assist to achieve long term changes to our relationship with ourselves, and in turn, greatly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s a whole new perspective that can help you achieve greater power and control over symptoms, and to build your feelings of peace and contentment in life.