To handle stress well and be more resilient, nothing is more important than managing the space between your ears, or for that, matter, the rest of your body and nervous system. For today, let’s start with your thoughts. In this time of concern about disease transmission and well-being, is your thinking infected by negativity and worry?
“Stinking thinking” is commonplace in our culture, partly because of the innate negativity bias (see Roy Baumeister’s seminal work on this – The Power of Bad) and partly because of the ease of access to a plethora of negative ideas. On top of that, science shows us that about 47% of the average adult’s cognitive time is spent ruminating about bad things that have happened in the past or worries about what might happen in the future. The fact is that it’s hard to drive attention into the present moment and even harder to detach from the avalanche of bad news we’re surrounded by on the web, much less in our immediate environment.
Your internal environment – what you think, imagine, rehearse, and attune to – is VITAL to your health and well-being. I want you to view your thoughts as yours, not by getting swept by them but by curiosity, such as “isn’t that thought interesting.” Another way is simply to notice what you are noticing, observing the thought pattern or form.
Many people in the self-help and self-development field encourage folks to manage their thoughts and challenge the negative thoughts that come up. Over the years, I’ve definitely had success using some of these direct attention control approaches. While such techniques can be useful, I find it more efficient to notice my bodily and emotional response then track it back to the thought or “movies” that are driving the internal response. Then I’m essentially practicing physical and emotional biofeedback to my own thought patterns.
How do you know if you are suffering from infected thinking? The best way to is to observe how you feel, physically and emotionally. Anytime you notice tension in your body, feeling anxious or apprehensive, or getting carried away emotionally, see if you can catch the thoughts that are driving the response. One self-awareness teacher has described emotions as the body’s response to the mind.
What I like about that framing is that images and thoughts create feelings and emotions which end up as physical manifestations. What’s particularly important about that right now is that the “infected thinking” can actually decrease your immune system’s capacity to fight of a virus. So, the next time your thoughts “go viral”, see if you can intercept them through self-awareness. Take stock of your physical and emotional state, do some self-care, and go within to address undesirable thinking patterns. You’ll be healthier for it.