There are times when I’ve wished I could switch my thinking brain off. Unfortunately, I haven’t found such a switch. Humans are a thinking bunch. We literally have thoughts firing off in a matter of milliseconds every day.  At times, it’s easy to get caught up in our mind’s chatter and this can influence our actions. For example, many of us have likely been faced with a situation at some point where we are unsure about something but may have the thought, “They will think I am incompetent/useless or an idiot if I ask” and therefore we don’t ask!  Sometimes, these sorts of thoughts can serve as barriers to living life fully. That is, the thoughts become our reality and we can feel removed from life outside of our head. 

It’s a skill to step back and distance ourselves from our thoughts, to be able to observe them, accept them, let them be or let them go, without getting tangled up in them. With practice, we can learn to treat thoughts as “just thoughts” – they come in the form of words and pictures and do not control our actions. We want to be able to learn to respond to thoughts in terms of how helpful they are, rather than how true they are.  

Some practical strategies to try:

  1. Initially practise noticing when you are drifting into negative thinking.
  2. Start by practising with minor concerns before moving onto major worries.
  3. It can help to ask yourself, “What thoughts are around?” 
  4. Label thoughts – “I’m thinking”, “I’m daydreaming”, “I’m worrying”, “I’m ruminating”.
  5. Put your negative thought into a short sentence – in the form “I am X” – for example, “I am incompetent”, “I am an idiot”.
  6. Get caught up with the thought for ten seconds – believe it as much as you can. 
  7. Now replay the thought with this phrase in front of it, “I’m having the thought that….”; for example, “I’m having the thought that I am incompetent”. 
  8. Replay that thought one more time but this time add the phrase, “I notice I’m having the thought that….”; for example, “I notice I’m having the thought that I am incompetent”. 

The idea is that we are not trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts but rather noticing the process of thinking. The thought itself is not the issue, being hooked into it is. By taking a step back on the content of the thought, it makes it less likely that we will be hooked into it and therefore be able to reduce how disruptive and distressing these types of thoughts can be. 

If you are a visual person, Clinical Psychologist Russ Harris demonstrates this concept using a sushi train metaphor: 

If you are interested in giving an activity a go, listen to this “watching thoughts” exercise provided by the Centre for Clinical Interventions: