Be your own friend: harness the power of thoughts

Published 18 April, 2024

Do you ever get stuck in a spiral of negative thinking?

Do fears of failing ever stop you from taking on a new challenge?

A thought is not simply the running commentary in our minds, or fleeting comments passing by. Thoughts are powerful and can influence our mood and our actions. If we think we can do something, we are more likely to give it a go, and therefore, we are more likely to succeed. If we learn how to train our minds to think as positively as possible, we might find that we begin to feel and act more positively too. With practice, we can harness the power of our thoughts to change our behaviour and how we feel.

Our thoughts

Our thoughts are complex. Most of our thoughts reflect our feelings, emotions, and physical experiences. Therefore, we cannot control the thoughts that spontaneously cross our minds day by day and how these thoughts make us feel. But we can control the way in which we respond to them.

Experiencing unhelpful thoughts is not uncommon. In fact, “negative thinking” is a positive evolutionary response. By focusing on negative emotions, such as pain, sadness, or anger we were more likely to identify danger in our environment. This explains why we often hold onto unhelpful thoughts and try to think them through. However, if we find ourselves continuously experiencing unhelpful thoughts, this can have adverse effects, as we begin to expect the worst and have a pessimistic outlook on our present and future experiences.

Unhelpful thoughts

The good news is that we can CHANGE our thoughts – we are in control of how we react, and how much we attend to our thoughts and therefore, this influences how often they come back. To do this, it’s important to recognise when we are experiencing unhelpful thoughts, so we prevent them from taking over our day. There are a few things we can look out for:

  • All or nothing thinking – This happens when we allow ourselves to only see the extremes of a situation rather than seeing a situation as complex with different causes and outcomes.
  • Jumping to conclusions – Where we make assumptions about how something will pan out or what other people are thinking without stopping to think that we cannot read minds or see into the future. This occurs when we associate our future experiences to a negative experience we had previously, believing that we will encounter the same outcome regardless of what we do differently.
  • Setting rules for ourselves – Thinking in “should” statements can prompt us to act in ways that we “should”. These can be unrealistic, difficult and may not align with our values, causing guilt and anxiety when these are not achieved.

So, how can we go about changing our thoughts? There are a few techniques that can enable you to approach your thoughts in a more helpful, and adaptive way.

Thought stopping

After attending to an unhelpful thought for some time and noticing it is starting to cause increased worry or concern, you can try to stop your thoughts in their tracks by saying “STOP” out loud or saying it to yourself in your mind. Thought stopping makes you take a pause and can help you regain focus on your day. You can do this as many times as you need in the day and it can be helpful in reducing negative emotions surrounding time spent ruminating on unhelpful thoughts.

Mindfulness

Sometimes it helps to focus on something else, something neutral and this is where mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of the present moment and viewing our thoughts as passing us by. It is different to thought stopping, as thoughts are welcomed rather than stopped and pushed out. Mindfulness allows us to become aware of our thoughts and feelings, but without judgment or forming opinions on them.

Imagine your thoughts as a train passing by the station. You don’t have to get on every train that comes past, you can simply watch them go by, and wait to get on the one that will help you get to where you need to go. Overall, mindfulness allows us to accept our thoughts as they are, and to guide our focus back to the present moment.

Some mindfulness activities include:

  • Placing your hand on your belly and taking 10 long slow breaths.
  • Focus on one thing that you can see, hear, taste, smell or feel.
  • Hold an object in your hand and think about what is looks like and feels like. Try to notice something new about it.
  • Close your eyes and think about yourself at a happy moment in your life. Try to use all your senses to get as much detail about the day as possible.

Self-compassion

Most of all it’s really important to talk to yourself in a kind and encouraging way. Try not to be too self-critical. Think about how you would encourage or support a good friend or family member and apply this advice and tone to yourself. The tone and the language you use when you are thinking to yourself is incredibly important – are you gentle and realistic or are you harsh and judgmental? You have to live with your thoughts – make them helpful, not something you’re always trying to get away from!

If you struggle with your thoughts and some of these things seem to have struck a chord with you, CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) might help you. This will show you how you can do this in a way that is more personal to you. You can refer yourself to your local NHS IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapy) service by visiting this website.

Always remember, changing our thoughts can change the outcome. Let us know in the comments section below how you deal with negative thoughts. Or, can you share a way in which you use positive thinking to make the best of each day?

If you try any of the approaches suggested here, we would love for you to share your experience with us in the comments.

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