Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts

For many years, I was an expert at making myself miserable by taking a neutral thought, turning it into a stressful one, and then spinning that stressful thought into an even more stressful story—one with little or no basis in reality. Read More

Sneaky Thoughts.

Toni, I have always found it amazing how these thoughts seem to sneak their way into our minds. It is like the second a plan is made, whether it be to meet with friends, go to dinner with your spouse or as you mentioned a Dr's appointment, the process begins. I find even if it is months away I am already thinking if I will be able to handle the situation. Will my pain levels be high that day. Will I have gotten enough sleep the night before. I find myself planning the outcome before it even gets here and that in itself gets me depressed.
I think it is something that we as individuals need to become more aware of what our responses are to the upcoming plans we make. Why for me do I almost instantly start to analyze the outcome and start stressing about it. By the time it gets here I am a total wreck and not looking forward to it at all because of the negativity I put in there from the beginning.
Thank you Toni for this eye opening thought process I need to be more aware of.Time for me I think to do some journaling about upcoming activities in my life.

Thanks Bill

I'm so glad this was helpful. I enjoyed your comment on FB too. I use Byron Katie's technique all the time. And, in my new book, I set out a technique for handing stressful thoughts and emotions. We can change our conditioned responses. It takes time, but we can. Even neuroscientists are saying that now!

Warmest wishes,

aka CBT

Thanks for the thoughtful post and the wonderful examples of how thoughts create feelings.

I assume you are aware the techniques you describe are essential to the practice of of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I'm curious, why you did not reference that fact, especially since your blog is on Psychology Today?

Keep up the great work.

Thanks David

I'm so glad you enjoyed the article, especially my examples. I didn't mention CBT because I'm not a therapists so I don't think it would be appropriate for me to discuss it. I've read a couple of books on it over the years and find it to be very helpful, especially the list of cognitive distortions. In my new book, I set out a four step approach for working with stressful thoughts and emotions, but again, not from a therapists perspective. It's more of a Buddhist-inspired approach although it has a lot in common with CBT, as does Byron Katie's approach.

All my best,

Byron Katie is a fake. She's

Byron Katie is a fake. She's an ego maniac. I've known many people who have followed her and her teaching and have ended up more miserable than they were before. Take her teaching with a grain of salt and don't give her any of your money and you'll be okay. :)

I respectfully disagree with you

Thousands of people have been helped by Byron Katie. Of course, there are some people who will not be. This is not surprising: "one size" does not fit all, especially when it comes to the mind.

If a person tries a technique (Byron Katie's or anyone else's) and it doesn't work for them, they should abandon it. And, if worrisome thoughts become obsessive and life-disrupting, I suggest that a person seek counseling.

As I said, one size does not fit all. In fact, in my new book, I set out my own approach to working with stressful thoughts and emotions. It's Buddhist-based. (I'm not a therapist and, as I said, anyone whose worry or anxiety is overwhelming should seek the help of a counselor.)

My best,

She may have temporarily

She may have temporarily helped people but the mind cannot be controlled by the mind and therefore the problem always returns and most people end up worse off than before because now they are troubled with the problem of trying to control the mind that cannot be controlled. It's absolutely futile. There is no escape from reality, no escape from thinking or the mind at all and anyone who sells you words saying you can escape thinking is lying to you. She's a multi millionaire who makes a living by lying to people. She's a fake, period. The people who follow her are trying to seek a mystical state that she cannot give them. It's just sad to see people fall for that garbage when they could be enjoying what they have already no matter how bad it seems at the moment.

Jon. Are you able to provide


Are you able to provide any evidence that supports your claim?

Your comments are likely to cause more suffering rather than helping anyone. I suspect you posted the comment because you are suffering. I'm sorry to hear that and I wish you all the best in finding happiness. We all deserve happiness; that includes you.

All the best,

Byron Katie

Thank you, and Martha Beck, and other noted teachers for sharing the work of Byron Katie. It is the only thing that seems to work for me - not other CBT, and I am so grateful for it. I just bought your book as I think it the coolest that OTHER teachers are humble enough to note her work and share it, a sign of real love for their readers I think.



You're welcome Stephanie

I'm glad it's worked for you. I discuss two of Byron Katie's techniques, both of them in How to Be Sick (that's where I go through the steps in this article) and another one in which she has you ground yourself in the present moment by describing concretely what you're doing, leaving out the emotional embellishments. I'm grateful for her contributions. I hope you find my book to be helpful!


Thank you

I needed to read this today - thank you. The doctor example you used is EXACTLY what I am going through right now. I keep getting referred on to another doctor (more specialists) since nobody can seem to pinpoint what is going on in my complex mind/body. I'm scared and defeated. That negative voice is beating me up, saying that it won't go well and I'll be disregarded again. It's an endless cycle of worry and defeat. Perhaps I'll keep reading this article and be able to change my view :) I certainly hope so. What a torment it is to have this negative thought cycle (I know, I've lived with it my whole life). Thanks again for sharing.

Big hug to you.

Big hug to you.

Thanks Jen

I'm glad that this article came at just the right time. It's so frustrating to be sick and not be able to get a clear diagnosis. As I say in the article, you're stressful thinking won't effect the outcome of the visit, so you might as well just wait and see how it unfolds. You may be pleasantly surprised. I hope so. I wanted to share my experience with doctors because I know it's a common source of worry and stress for people.

All my best,

When we look deeply enough in

When we look deeply enough in to what stress really does to us, we arm ourselves with the cognitive motivation to stop these thoughts from bobbing up from the depths of our primitive minds.

Prolonged stress causes a rise in base levels of Cortisol.

Cortisol, as a neurotransmitter/hormone, is responsible for reassigning blood and energy to supply to the muscles so that "fight or flight" can have all available energy.

To do this, cortisol redirects blood and energy away from areas that are not essential to dealing with the source of stress and causes many biological processes to reduce their effectiveness, or shut down completely.

Processes such as;

Digestion (leading to stomach and bowel problems)
Reproductive processes (leading to infertility, impotence and likelihood for miscarriage)
Cell repair and reproduction (opens the door to cancers, etc.)
Higher cognitive processing (thinking your way out of problems)
Immune system (opening us to all sorts of diseases).

The list goes on and on ..

For ages, scientists puzzled over why salmon would die so soon after reaching their spawning grounds. They would autopsy them and find them teaming with disease and major organ failure. Then they tested their Cortisol levels and found that they were off the scale. Cortisol was the key in providing their muscles with all the energy they needed to swim upstream and up waterfalls to the spawning grounds, it also killed them.....

Great comment. Much better

Great comment. Much better advice than that new age spirituality crap.

Hi Jon :-)

Actually, neuroscience and studies in brain plasticity are backing up many things that we might otherwise have consider to be "spirituality crap". I suggest, if you want to understand a bit more about how science has been working with Buddhism, you look at getting yourself a copy of "Destructive Emotions; a dialogue with the Dalai Lama"; by Daniel Goleman.


While there is, undoubtedly, a fair amount of spirituality "crap" out there, there's also a fair amount of truth too.

These techniques are to help with prolonged stress

You say that "Prolonged stress causes a rise in base levels of Cortisol." And then go on to discuss all of the ways the can cause disease in the body. Techniques such at Byron Katie's and various CBT approaches are intended to reduce stress. If your premise about Cortisol is correct, these techniques should help people from becoming susceptible to these bodily dysfunctions.

My best,

Hi Toni :-)

I don't know much about Byron Katie (although I do know a fair amount about CBT) and there was nothing in my comment that criticised anything Ms Katie has suggested. I was just pointing out the biology of stress and mindfulness.

If you’d like to know more about Cortisol and how it works, I suggest you look up Dr Robert Sapolsky (Stanford Uni’s Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences)

Lots of good stuff on YouTube.

The stuff comes at you like a battering ram and sometimes takes a few viewings ... there’s a eureka moment in almost every paragraph.

Hello Simon

I apologize if my comment sounded as if I thought you were criticizing Byron Katie. I was just pointing out that her technique as well as others can help people reduce stress, even Cortisol-caused stress. Thanks for the reference to Dr. Sapolsky. I'll look it up.

And thanks for your helpful contributions here.

All the best,

One big problem...

Byron Katie isn't a licensed therapist, and while people undoubtedly find her ideas helpful, they should be taken with a grain of salt. One big problem with these four questions is that some stressful thoughts SHOULD be taken seriously. If you feel chest pain and numbness in your left arm, and worry you're having a heart attack, it may not be reasonable to wait until you're "absolutely sure" it's a heart attack before seeking medical attention. And you can't always be sure, because heartburn and stomach ulcers can cause similar symptoms.

I think "absolutely sure" is a dangerous and unreasonable standard. It may be harmless when a stressful thought really is unrealistic, but it's not appropriate for cases when people may actually be in danger of injury. I notice that the "turnaround" step doesn't involve asking if you're "absolutely sure" the positive thought is true, only whether it might be true. And I think the same standard should be applied to negative thoughts-- ask whether they might be wrong, but don't demand absolute certainty.

Hello Christa

If someone had chest pain and numbness in the arm, Byron Katie would NOT tell them to use her "inquiry" to deal with it. These are physical symptoms, not stressful thoughts. In the hypothetical you propose, I would hope that nobody would ask "Am I absolutely sure" these pains aren't important.

The purpose of the turnaround step is to open your mind to other possibilities than believing your stressful thoughts. It's not to come up with the"right answer."

I hope that clarifies.

By the way, Chris (and everyone), I have no affiliation with Byron Katie. I just find her technique to be helpful and from the thousands of emails I've received about the chapter in my book on it, others do to.

Thanks so much for raising this issue so I could make it clear that she is not talking about physical symptoms.

All my best,

This article needs a Part 2!

On the one hand, I really love this. Yes, it is true, and we all recognize that we create misery for ourselves by telling ourselves pessimistic stories.

Yet the problem I've had throughout my life has been unjustified optimism. I'm broadsided by rude, harassing behavior, and have been harmed by both legal and medical malpractice, employers engaged in law breaking, and many other serious problems. I am always surprised.

The real dilemma is, how do you deal with the world as it is today without repeating worst-case-scenario stories in your head? How do you prepare for the worst without letting these sorts of very unproductive thoughts consume you?

Most people I know have experienced some serious event they never expected or prepared for: unemployment, divorce, sexual harassment, losing a chunk of their retirement due to broker malfeasance, being forced to sell a major asset at distressed prices, you name it. None of these events were predictable in advance, but that is just the point. We live in a world of risk and uncertainty. Almost NO event is "certain" to happen or not to happen, and almost no one can be "absolutely sure" of any outcome.

So, how do you prepare for the inevitable reversals in life? That's what we need to know.

I agree that the negative thought spiral is useless at best, and probably makes a person less able to confront real adversity when it does come. So, what should we do instead?

I was so glad to read your

I was so glad to read your post about being overly optimistic then being broadsided by reality . I'd love to hear more on that subject....As I was reading all the comments, it was exactly what I was thinking that I do.... I'm so intent on looking for the silver lining that I oftentimes miss how big the black cloud is. Then, what a shock.

I was very fortunate to have my worse physical symptoms and diagnoses with a Dr. who understood me. His advice was to remind me "now is not the time to be stoic". And when I would open up and give him a list of odd symptoms, etc (usually something I'd been dealing with on my own for quite sometime.) He would calmly state that "yes, you can expect some of that" or "well, that's par for the course" and then he'd try a new treatment plan. His low key neutral acceptance helped me to remain calm.

Sometimes, despite illness, I live in harmony with my body. I credit a few good doctors, children saying, Mom! If you don't tell us you feel bad, we won't know! And a caring community from which I learned to accept the offers of help. Little things just seem to work out. Serendipity.

You raise many good issues

All of your questions are good ones and I've spent many years searching for answers myself. I don't write for Psychology Today to "push" my books, but it happens that the very issues you raise are the some of the main themes in my new book, "How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow." You need not be Buddhist to benefit from it: it's non-parochial.

In the very first chapter, I talk about uncertainty and unpredictability. These are universal laws that we cannot change and so we have to find a way to make peace with them. The book is full of practices and exercises to help with this. It's also helpful to learn to cultivate equanimity, which is based, first, on seeing and accepting the human condition as it is (uncertainty included) and then learning to ride life's ups and downs without being thrown about like a ship at sea. There are many practices in the book to help with this too.

I only mention the book because it would take too long to address in a comment here these issues you raise that all of us must face in life.

All my best to you,

Different Strokes

As in all things, one must explore options as to methods that may be useful for one's unique circumstances. I welcome any and all ideas, insight, methods. As Toni commented, one size doesn't fit all. My path is an ongoing one, I add what I need, shed what isn't useful and keep traveling. Chronic illness is no fun but in that exists still a life, joy, happiness, albeit on a modified level:-).

I appreciated the information on cortisol, I know something of it but this was useful for me. As to thoughts, I have found it extremely helpful to question them. I haven't used the four step process, I merely ask myself if a thought is true. I'm open to trying this four step method. After all, thoughts are just that, thoughts and the brain produces a steady stream of them. If I were to pay attention to each one, I'd not only be exhausted but tossed about in an endless process of going hither and thither. It is easy to become attached to them, especially when one has a distinct reference point or experience that points to a potentially poor outcome. This is easy to say, difficult to practice, but the way I survive is moment to moment. It helps me to keep from projecting my thoughts onto events in my life that in all likelihood may turn out to be completely positive!

In any case, it isn't anyone's way or the highway:-). We learn from one another, share experiences in the hope something can be gleaned in the sharing. Toni's blog has been a source of encouragement, ideas, comfort and stimulating discourse for me, illness aside. I am grateful to her, to all.


Thanks Sharon

I like your "different strokes" approach and your wisdom to shed what isn't useful. That can be hard when people and the culture are telling us the opposite, but I try to listen to my body and my mind as best I can.

Warmest wishes,




for this good advice, Bonnie. I like to call this approach "Start where you are" and it's one of the equanimity practices in my new book. I'm so glad to see you're already practicing it!

All good wishes,

Thank you for this article.

Thank you for this article. As someone who is currently on medication for severe anxiety, I have been looking into various mindfulness methods and found them very helpful alongside my meds. A stress thought (what I call a non-genuine warning, which I believe most of us do know the difference of, though they often feel the same to those who are suffering) is just that - a thought. It's not the core of who we are, it's not something akin to a vision of the future, but they can cause pain.

To view it, evaluate it, and let it pass has been a gift to me.

Hello Jessica

I'm so glad to hear that you found this article helpful. I like your term "a non-genuine warning." I talk a lot about the thought process in my new book -- how they are just arising and passing energies in the mind and we need not identify with them. I'm glad you're working with this too.


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Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.


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