There was a time in my life when unwanted thoughts got the best of me.
I would worry about everything, and it would prevent me from living my life to the fullest. I was always so focused on the future or on things that could go wrong, that I never truly enjoyed the present moment.
Thankfully, I was able to get help and learn how to deal with my thoughts in a more positive way. Nowadays, I am much more mindful and appreciative of what is happening in the present moment. Of course, there are still times when unwanted thoughts pop into my head, but now, I know how to deal with them in a healthier way.
Mindfulness practice has been shown to relieve distressing thoughts. The idea that “I’m not good enough” can trigger emotions such as sadness and self-loathing, but regular mindfulness helps us overcome these negative responses by reminding us of our strengths in the present moment instead of focusing on what’s wrong with ourselves or others.
Use these mindfulness practices to hit pause on distressing thoughts:
Distressing thoughts can usually be categorized as either judgments or catastrophic thoughts. Judgment thoughts classify people or situations as good or bad, and catastrophic thoughts are about fears for the future.
It can feel as though there is no escape from these thoughts and the resulting emotional responses. However, these five practices that I use are designed to help us categorize, accept, and remain detached from thoughts that may cause us emotional harm.
1. The Race
This practice is useful for labeling and categorizing thoughts, which helps us feel in control of our mind. To begin, keep your eyes open and let your gaze go soft. Imagine that you are standing on the sidelines of a running track. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, visualize it as a runner entering the right-hand side of your vision and moving toward the center.
As the thought runs past you, categorize that thought and imagine giving the runner a colored bib to reflect that category. For example, you might give self-depreciating thoughts orange bibs, or put catastrophic thoughts in blue bibs. Allow the categorized ideas to run past you, fading and disappearing beyond the left-hand peripheral of your vision.
Use as many colors as you need, or introduce patterns such as stripes, spots, or stars to categorize your thoughts as accurately as possible. Stay with this exercise for five minutes, redirecting your attention to the running track if you lose focus.
2. Paper Boats
We can practice this exercise with closed or open eyes. Visualize a river wending its way through a forest, culminating in a waterfall that drops off the edge of the image. Every time a thought comes into your mind, picture holding it in your hands and turning it into a paper boat.
Place the boat on the river and watch it float slowly along with the current, getting smaller and further away, then finally getting drawn into the waterfall and off the edge of the image.
Repeat this process with every thought that enters your mind. This practice helps you observe your thoughts without entertaining them.
This exercise is particularly useful if distressing thoughts interfere with us achieving our goals. Keep your eyes open with a soft gaze, and get into a comfortable position. Imagine that you are steering a lifeboat across a large expanse of water.
Picture a goal that you want to achieve and place it on the most distant shore. For example, you might be moving toward a first date, a job interview, or a trip abroad. As you move through the water, thoughts may enter your mind, discouraging you from reaching your goal.
Visualize these thoughts as people floating on rafts in the ocean. As they float toward you, allow them to board your lifeboat and take a seat on a wooden bench. You might envision the thoughts as people, or they might take an abstract form representing the thought. For example, the thought, “everybody is going to laugh at me,” might be represented by a hyena.
Practice this activity for five minutes, allowing your boat to fill up with passengers as thoughts enter your mind. Try not to resist or become angry; just allow the thoughts to keep boarding your boat and sitting on the bench. Imagine yourself moving tirelessly toward the shore and your goal.
4. The Staircase
This exercise helps you to find your center. Finding your center is a concept found in mindfulness and yoga, and is about finding emotional, physical, and spiritual balance. This exercise helps you to find this sense of balance by creating a safe, meditative space within yourself where distressing thoughts are not welcome.
To find your center, place one hand on your chest, the other on your stomach, and close your eyes. Take three deep breaths and imagine a spiral staircase stretching down into darkness. Picture yourself walking down the steps, breathing slowly as you walk.
If a thought comes into your mind, imagine placing this thought on the step you are on, then continue your descent. Continue walking down the spiral steps, placing any thoughts you experience on the steps as you go. After a few minutes, you should begin to experience a sense of calm. Allow yourself to reach the bottom of the staircase. This is your center.
Your imagination will naturally start to build an image based on what makes you feel calm, but you can choose to visualize a setting such as a beautiful beach, a garden or your bedroom. Spend one or two minutes standing in your center, continuing to take deep breaths.
If any further thoughts come into your mind, imagine carrying them to the foot of the spiral staircase and placing them on the bottom step, then returning to your center.
This exercise is a great way to track how many thoughts we experience during a short period. Tracking the number of thoughts we experience when we are distressed can reduce their intensity and help us feel less overwhelmed.
Imagine that you are an astronaut drifting slowly through the galaxy in your spaceship. Visualize the darkness of space, the Milky Way, and tiny stars all around you. Every time a thought comes into your mind, select a star to represent it and visualize that star becoming brighter than the others.
Practice the exercise for five minutes, lighting up a star for every thought that comes into your mind. Remember that you are safe inside your spaceship and that the thoughts are outside in the sky.
They say that mindfulness is the key to happiness, and these five mindfulness practices can help us feel less distressed when experiencing unwanted thoughts. I know they helped me.
Mindfulness requires practice to feel significant benefits. I try to set aside five minutes each day to practice one of these activities. Over time, we too should be able to access a mindful state easily.
Now, when unwanted thoughts pop into my head, I simply acknowledge them and let them go. This has helped me to live more peacefully and happily.