Reducing Stressful Thought Patterns with Mindfulness

Stress…..it’s part and parcel of all our lives. Sometimes it comes in roaring like a lion, demanding attention and immediate relief, and at other times, it builds up over time, slowly, until we are finally overcome with our reaction to it. And still, at other times, it ebbs and flows in such a way that we are able to ride it out, so to speak, with mindful attention, so that we do not get caught up and swept away in the storm.

Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening in the present moment without judgment. The judgment comes in when we get lost in the barrage of thoughts that seem to tumble rapidly, one on top of the other, in our minds causing us to misread, misinterpret and many times mistakenly arrive at judgments that are not helpful to us. The result can be adding more stress to our already overloaded day/weeks/months.

I often refer to this as “A to Z Thinking.” Let me give an example of how this works:  If upon waking you discover your shoulder is aching and sore, and you felt great the night before, you might start to focus on the pain thinking what did I do? Is it my bed? Is it how I was sitting last night? Is it going to hurt all day? Will I be able to focus on anything else? What if it gets worse? What if my other shoulder starts to hurt? What will I do if I can’t move it? Should I have an Xray? Maybe I need an MRI? Who will I go to about this?  Why does this always happen to me? I hate myself and my body! This really sucks! What if it is bone cancer? What am I going to do? I feel so lost. Maybe I will just call in sick.

Now this might seem like extreme example, but it is indeed what many of us do. We go from one thought to another to another in such rapid progression that we are unaware of the “thought train” our mind is traveling on!  We go from waking with a sore shoulder to having cancer in sometimes, a very short span of time.

This way of thinking can indeed, catch us by surprise, and make us feel very stressed.

Now, let’s try the same scenario with mindful awareness: Yes, I can feel my shoulder is sore this AM although it did felt great last night. Maybe I slept in an odd position or perhaps it is from something else. I know I can get caught up in over thinking things like this when they happen. So let me just stop and get off the A to Z thinking train right here and right now. I will get up, take my shower, move around and just see what happens as the day goes on.

The biggest difference in the second example is the ability of the aware and present thinking mind to acknowledge the pain, not discount or over inflate it. Making a choice to not get lost in rumination and making a choice to recognize what simply is present with kind and compassionate self talk.

Meditation, which is what I like to tell people is the formal practice of mindfulness, helps us to catch that thought train more and more often so we don’t get so caught up in looking for blame outside ourselves, or making ourselves suffer more by this habituated pattern of thinking. It enables us to learn how to focus our attention so that we react less to life and learn how to instead, respond. Responding instead of reacting reduces stress, allows us to focus more and feel more at ease with ourselves and our life.

So, with meditation practice and patience, next time you catch yourself on that A to Z thought train, acknowledge it in a way that derails the thoughts. Doing so with kind, compassionate self-talk can be tremendously helpful toward reducing any added stress to your day/week/month/year.

 

 

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