Getting Hold of Your Thoughts
Our control over events is limited. An excellent example of this is the coronavirus. In fact, even thinking about an uncontrollable situation is a waste of time. It activates the stress response, including the production of cortisol and other stress products in the blood.
The brain does not know the difference between imagining the stressor and experiencing the stressor. Over time, these stress hormones allow inflammation to develop, which has a deleterious effect on our cardiovascular and other systems.
To reduce stress and keep our immune system working well, it is crucial we keep our body in a relaxed state, and to do that, we must prevent worry. Soaking in a hot tub, exercise, massage, muscle relaxation, and visualization are all helpful, but their effects are fleeting. We may use these methods to relax physically, but the minute we stop or lie down to sleep, the thoughts in our heads put us right back in that state of stress.
If we ruminate over something bad that happened in the past or agonize over a future crisis, we activate the stress response and its attendant hormones. If we are to truly relax and decrease stress, we must be able to reduce thoughts of the past (anger or sadness) and thoughts of the future (anxiety or fear).
Most of us agree that thinking about the past is useless, but we probably believe that thinking about the future will help us make plans to cope with problems. Apparently not:
One study found that 85 percent of the things people worry about never happen (Leahy, 2005).
The power of worry is more startling when we realize that people have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day and that up to 70 percent of those are negative (Raghunathan, 2013). One of the problems is that we tend to let our minds wander, following these negative thoughts.
A revealing study on human nature
Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) published a study in Science that involved 2250 subjects who were asked to respond to a web application at random times by answering three questions:
- How are you feeling right now?
- What are you doing right now? and
- Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?
Nearly half the people responded “Yes” to question 3, indicating their minds were wandering. During periods of mind-wandering, the respondents were significantly less happy than when they were not allowing their minds to wander. What people were thinking about predicted happiness more than what people were doing.
Suggestions to increase your inner peace
So, based on this finding, how can we decrease the mind’s wandering, to decrease worry and stress and increase happiness? I would like to propose two possible solutions, both of which are aimed at keeping the mind at bay.
First, we can select a calming or uplifting word or phrase to repeat during times when we usually let our mind wander.
For example, I can be stuck in traffic or washing the dishes while repeating, “I am at peace with what is, what was, and what will be.” This repetition is sometimes referred to as a mantra. Over time, the mind becomes trained to use the mantra when it is not required for work or other mental activity, decreasing its tendency to wander down negative paths.
The second suggestion is to use meditation daily to give the mind and body a rest from the onslaught of thinking. Meditation is a restful state distinct from sleep and more effective than just relaxing. Instead of focusing on our thoughts, during meditation we close our eyes and gaze into whatever we see in front of us while repeating a calming word or our mantra. This repetition keeps the mind occupied and prevents it from wandering.
You can begin meditating for five or six minutes and increase the time each day, hopefully working up to a regular ten minutes daily, and later to thirty minutes. If practiced daily, research says that even ten minutes a day will significantly decrease stress. Even that short time without negative thinking can give you a boost and provide an oasis of peace in a worried world.
Leahy, R. The worry cure. Three Rivers Press.
Raghunathan, R. (2013) How negative is your mental “chatter”? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sapient-nature/201310/how-negative-is-your-mental-chatter
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.
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