As a coach and mentor, I often hear from my clients, “I wish I could control my mind,” wanting to stop negative thinking or feeling. Yet, this perspective can often increase frustration, anxiety or even depression, and make things worse.
The truth of the matter is that you can’t completely control either. And trying not to think of something, called the "Ironic Process Theory," or trying to suppress thoughts can make them more likely to reoccur.
In the book, The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris says 80% of our thoughts contain negative content. In her book, The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä explained why negative thoughts come into our minds as a process by which our brain’s habit of being negative as a protective and defensive process. As a result, she says, “We have such a strong propensity to favor negativity that we have a skewed vision of reality.”
A study of more than 30,000 people in the U.K. revealed that focusing on negative life events can be the prime predictor of some of today’s most common health problems. Results from this large study indicated that it isn’t just a matter of life events, but how we react to those events that shapes our psychological well-being.
If we accept that you can’t control your thoughts or feelings, but rather focus on cultivating your awareness of them, and regulate their impact, without getting caught up with them, then life can be far less stressful. The important thing is to realize that the content of our thoughts and emotions is less important than how we let them affect us.
In fact, research shows that when people are instructed not to think about a specific thing, it makes it more difficult to get that thing out of their minds. But revisiting negative thoughts repeatedly, also known as rumination, can be unpleasant and counterproductive. In some cases, it can lead to extreme anxiety or chronic depression. “It’s like a needle in a groove," says Guy Winch, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. "As the groove gets deeper and deeper, the needle has a harder time getting out of the groove."
This is where mindfulness comes in. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in mindfulness practices, can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In other words, mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thoughts without labeling or judging them.
A review of mindfulness research found that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry. The researchers conclude, “more broadly, it appears that treatments in which the participants are encouraged to change their thinking style, or to disengage from emotional responses to rumination and/or worry, could be helpful.”
Researchers Rimma Teper and her colleagues at the University of Toronto found that despite the misconception that meditation “empties the mind of emotions,” mindfulness actually “helps us become more aware and accepting of emotional signals which helps us control our behavior.” Norman Farb and colleagues found mindfulness interventions promoted increased tolerance of negative emotions and improved well-being.
R. Chambers and colleagues concluded, based on an integrative review, that mindful emotion regulation “does not entail suppression of the emotional experience…but involves a systematic retraining of awareness and non-reactivity, leading to defusion from whatever is experienced and allowing the individual to more consciously choose those thoughts, emotional and sensations they will identify with, rather than habitually reacting to them.”
So here are 7 mindfulness strategies that can be effective in managing negative thoughts and emotions:
Copyright, 2017 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.
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To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.