3 Ways to Make Friends with Scary or Negative Thoughts

Change your relationship to thoughts and emotions.

Posted Jul 19, 2019

Did you count the number of thoughts you had today? If you laughed at that question or found it ludicrous to consider because of the onslaught of thoughts you experience daily, I wouldn’t blame you. Let's suppose you averaged 15-20 thoughts per minute. That means you could potentially have in the neighborhood of around 15,000-20,000 thoughts in the course of a day. 

Now, regardless of exactly how many thoughts you have, here’s what I do want you to consider: 

How many of those thousands of thoughts tell you something really profound about who you are? How many are just reactive thoughts? Random thoughts? Conditioned thoughts? Habitual thoughts? 

In other words, what is your relationship with your thoughts? Do you rigidly follow thoughts as if they were commands from above declaring the absolute truth? Do anxious thoughts frighten you and keep you from finding joy and happiness? Or, are you able to find amusement in even the more outlandish thoughts that randomly flash across the mind’s eye? 

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Get that scary arrow off your head
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How can we learn to recognize that thoughts are not necessarily facts? There are many therapy methods that work directly with thoughts, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which emphasizes having clients learn to recognize thinking styles and determine whether or not they are accurate. 

Mindfulness, however, takes this idea a step further, by letting us take a more neutral stance toward all our thoughts. In this way, we learn not to fear thoughts or define ourselves by our thoughts. 

We can still analyze thoughts as with CBT, but mindfulness takes a more dramatic approach because it literally changes our relationship with our thoughts. As an example of this, imagine that you’re in a theatre, watching a scary movie. A particularly frightening scene is playing, causing sympathetic nervous system arousal. Your heart rate and respiration increase, and the body’s fight-or-flight response is activated. Suddenly, someone turns up the lights in the theatre. What happens? 

The scary movie is still playing, but now you turn around and notice that a projector is flashing those images on a screen. It’s all light and sound effects. In that moment, you also become acutely aware of your surroundings. You notice how the theatre is decorated, the colors of the curtains and walls, the chairs, and the other patrons. Your experience in the moment has dramatically shifted, and you’re no longer in that heightened state of arousal. 

In a similar way, mindfulness meditation teaches us to turn on the lights in the theatre of the mind. Instead of grabbing onto thoughts or emotions—thus identifying with them—we can observe them with the lights turned on. There is research illustrating that simply labeling or naming our emotions can help us to regulate and quiet down the sympathetic nervous system.

In a study entitled "Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling," researchers showed subjects pictures of persons with facial expressions depicting strong emotions. The task for subjects was to give a name to the emotion they viewed on the picture. The results found that those individuals who were able to match the correct emotion with the expression tended to be more open and aware of what was happening in the moment—in other words, they were more naturally, or dispositionally, mindful.

In addition, those subjects who could name the emotion did not themselves get their own emotions triggered by that picture (the other subjects did get triggered). The process of naming the emotion, or affect, had the effect of turning on the light in the theatre. And that, in turn, was emotionally regulating. 

I contacted researcher J. David Creswell to talk about this study, and Creswell said that he believed an inhibiting signal was being sent from the executive center of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) to the amygdala, causing it to be inhibited. In another sense, this brain mechanism can be understood as integrating the brain from the top down.

Fundamentally, this research shows how a mindful awareness of thoughts and emotions quiets the stress part of the brain. And that’s why the practice of naming our emotions can help anyone not only change the relationship with the mind, but ultimately make greater peace with the mind. 

Try this simple three-step strategy for changing your relationship to any emotion during the day: 

1. Observe and Name Your Emotions

Make your emotions the object of your attention by giving each emotion a name. 

2. Rate the Emotion 

On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being low and 10 being high) rate the intensity of the emotion. Continue to rate it over a period of time. 

3. Sense the Emotion in the Body 

Where is the emotion—anger, frustration, impatience, disappointment, or otherwise—located in the body? Where are you feeling tight, clenched up, guarded? Change your body position and unclench in the moment.  

Ideally, you will find greater peace in this way.

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