Recovering Mental Balance
Learning to Control Thoughts
Thoughts can be both a source and a result of stress. Thinking about stressful events can create as much tension as experiencing those events in the first place. Our mind is drawn to stressful thinking as tension levels increase. Chapter Four described how our brain works as a self-organizing system: Our view of reality is based on previous experience and perception. How and what we think determines our view of the world and the people who live here. Chapter Eight explained how our mind reacts to stress by narrowing our focus; how our thoughts influence our stress and tension levels; and how the mental recycling of negative thoughts can send our stress levels spiraling. This chapter describes how to let go of stressful thinking while finding ways to bring resolution to our problems and a sense of ease to our thoughts and activities.
Thoughts tend to drift into our mind at random when we are not focused. We can jump from one train of thought to another without realizing where our mind has been or where it is taking us. The exercises in this chapter help us to make choices about how we think and what we think about. The first step is to break up destructive habits of thinking; the second is to learn to focus in ways that help us to resolve our problems and accomplish our goals. Three techniques will be described. The first, which I call “Thought Refocusing,” provides a way to let go of harmful habits of thinking. The second technique, Meditation, helps us learn to let go of unwanted thoughts and to focus where we choose. The third technique, which I simply call “Clarifying,” helps us to recognize where our thoughts are leading us and to see a larger picture and relevant details more clearly. Using each of these techniques makes it easier to use the others to build an overall strategy for recovering and maintaining mental balance.
Thought Refocusing provides a way out of the mental recycling of negative thoughts that often follow stressful events. Long after the incident has passed, we persist in repeating thoughts such as “How could he do that to me? … What right does she have to say that? … Who does he think he is? … Why does everything happen to me? etc.” These thoughts create tension and interfere with clear thinking and problem solving. Trying to push unhelpful thoughts out of our minds sounds easy but never seems to work. We might stop thinking about them for a few seconds, but the thoughts return again and again.
It is helpful to recall the metaphor used in Chapter Four which compares our brain to a sandy hill and habits of thinking to the little rivers that are formed as water runs down the hill. The trenches become deeper as more water runs down the hill. New water is more likely to run down the deeper trenches. Repeated thoughts create connections in our brain which make it more likely that those thoughts will be repeated again. Thought Refocusing creates “another river” on the sandy hill that is our brain. Deepening this “river” through repetition makes it easier for new thoughts to go in that direction. Thought Refocusing involves choosing a “Rhythm Phrase” that brings you a sense of peace and hope and can be repeated in rhythm with breath or activity. It can be a short prayer, a quotation, part of a poem, or any saying that brings you a sense of peace and hope. I have found that the length does make a difference. When observing clients practice this technique, I notice that their breathing doesn’t have as smooth or easy a rhythm with phrases that cannot be effortlessly repeated within six to twelve seconds.
Examples of Rhythm Phrases that I have used include: “Love is patient, love is kind”; “Guide our feet in the path of peace”; “Rooted and grounded in love”; “Peace and Calm (repeated very slowly) and my favorite “Always choose love.” It is helpful to take some time to choose a phrase that has particular meaning to you and that fits the situation at hand. It’s best to stay with one phrase at first so it becomes more quickly established in your brain.
Once you have chosen a Rhythm Phrase, start to repeat it silently to yourself whenever you have mental “down time” – while driving, taking a shower, going for a walk, waiting in line, doing household chores. Its not hard to find time for hundreds of repetitions per day. Repeating the phrase sets an easy rhythm and brings a sense of peace to these activities, but, more important, it establishes a deeper set of connections (or “rivers”) in your mind. Starting to recite your phrase as soon as you realize that you are recycling disruptive thoughts allows you to let go of negative thoughts and restore your peace of mind.
Most people report that they are able to successfully replace negative thinking with their chosen phrases after less than a week of practice. It can be particularly helpful to use Thought Refocusing when stressful thoughts interfere with sleep. It is also beneficial to link repetition of the phrase with Natural Rhythmic Breathing whenever possible. Simply repeat the first half of the phrase during the inhale and the second half during the exhale.
What Is Meditation?
The term “meditation” has been used to describe a wide range of practices including reflection on a single topic, prayer, and guided imagery as well as a variety of relaxation techniques. The meditation I teach is much simpler than all of those and has been practiced for thousands of years. A considerable amount of research indicates that it reduces muscle tension, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates brain waves associated with deep states of relaxation. People who practice meditation regularly report that they feel calmer, more rested, more peaceful. These are good reasons to consider learning to meditate, but, in my experience, one of the most important benefits is that it teaches us to control our thinking. Meditation helps us recognize when our thoughts are taking us in an unhelpful direction and allows us to choose how and what we think.
In some ways, our mind is like a radio that we can’t shut off – it is always thinking about or commenting on something. Learning to focus our thoughts on what is relevant at the moment allows our body to relax and take care of itself.
Meditation involves centering our attention on a single focus and gradually letting go of any distractions that come up. When we are able to maintain this focus, we experience an increased sense of calm, peace, and relaxation. However, distractions are part of the process and eventually we realize that we are thinking about something else. That is where the mental-skill-building aspect of meditation comes into play. We simply allow the distracting thought to pass and gently return our mind to the single focus. This can happen dozens or even hundreds of times during each meditation session. Meditation trains our mind and our brain to let go of distracting thoughts and return our focus where we choose. Trying to push away distractions or force our concentration interferes with this process. Effective meditation requires no effort or experience. It is simply a process of gently letting go of whatever distractions arise and returning our attention to the focus of the meditation.
I personally have found this to be an invaluable skill not only in managing and preventing stress but also in problem solving and communicating with others. The regular practice of meditation helps us learn to suspend one way of thinking and look at a person or situation in new ways. It develops the capacity to let go of selfcentered or unhelpful thoughts and listen more fully to what others are saying. This became clear to me during a particularly high-stress time in my life. Since I had been meditating for a number of years, it had become part of my daily routine. I continued meditating during this di cult time, but experienced constant distractions during my regular meditation. I found that after a short while, my ability to control the focus of my thoughts in my work and while under stress had significantly improved. My meditations during this time were not particularly peaceful or satisfying, but they accomplished for me what I needed at the time.
There is no such thing as a “bad” or unproductive meditation. If we stay with our focus, we feel relaxed and refreshed. If we have lots of distractions, we get lots of practice in letting go of unwanted thoughts and choosing our focus. In most sessions, we get a bit of both. Meditation is a process of developing and fine-tuning a skill. The key is regular practice. A professional basketball player will shoot many thousands of baskets before making it to the pros. If a player stops practicing for a while, she will get “rusty” and need work to bring back the earlier skill level.
Meditation becomes most effective when practiced on a regular basis. I’ve been practicing it regularly since 1972 and when I skip a day, it feels like the mental equivalent of not brushing my teeth. My thinking is just not as clear or astute as when I meditate daily. I find that I am even more creative and productive on days when I am able to meditate two or three times. Meditating more than three times per day does not seem to make any difference.
When to Meditate
It is most helpful to find a regular time when you can meditate every day. It is more important to meditate regularly than to meditate for long periods of time. Practicing five minutes once per day will be helpful. Ten minutes will be much more helpful and twenty or thirty minutes is significantly more helpful than that. Likewise, once per day is helpful, yet twice or three times are even more helpful. In my experience, practicing more than thirty minutes or three times per day does not seem to bring much additional benefit. The important thing is to work out a regular routine that can work with your schedule and commitments. You may decide to increase the time once you begin to experience the benefits. The key, however, is regular practice.
Choosing a Meditation Technique
Most religions and martial arts disciplines teach forms of meditation. Some people have tried to make up their own meditations, but I have found these to be less effective than techniques that have stood the test of time. If you are using a form of meditation that was learned from a well-trained, experienced instructor, I would encourage you to continue that. Changing your meditation technique tends to interfere with the learning process, and I would suggest not altering your meditation practice without good reason. I will present two options for meditation in this book. One is over 2500 years old and comes from Yoga; the other is a Christian prayer, called Centering Prayer that has been practiced for over 1800 years.
How to Meditate
It is helpful to follow a set routine when learning to meditate. Following the same steps each time makes it easier to settle into the process. Setting aside a regular time and place for meditation helps us to be oriented and prepared for the practice. Sitting upright in a relaxed position with our feet on the floor is the best position for meditation. Since meditation is done with our eyes closed, it is too easy to fall asleep if we meditate lying down and too di cult to fully relax if we are standing. It is important to begin the meditation with Natural Rhythmic Breathing and then use a technique that helps to focus our attention.
Paying attention to the sensation of your breath at the tip your nose serves this function. You will notice that your breath feels cooler as you inhale and warmer as you exhale. Focusing on that physical sensation helps to ease you into the meditation process.
The next step is to silently repeat a sound with each inhale and exhale. If you want to practice the yoga meditation, use the sound “so” on the inhale and “hum” on the exhale. These are Sanskrit words that mean “this” and “that.” To incorporate the Christian Centering Prayer into your meditation, simply repeat the name “Jesus” with each breath. Slowly say the first syllable with the inhale and the second syllable with the exhale. Continue repeating the sound until the time you have set aside for meditating has passed. (You can either set a timer or check your watch or a clock to see when you are finished.) When distractions come into your mind, simply let them pass and very gently return your focus to your breathing and repeating the sound. Do not try to force your concentration. Remember that distractions are a natural occurrence and not an indication that you are doing anything wrong.
If we picture our thoughts as a line on a piece of paper, high stress turns straight lines into circles and scribbles. Stress seems either to drive our thoughts over and over the same issues or to bounce them from problem to problem. Nothing gets resolved, and we feel increasingly worn out and frazzled. “Clarifying” is a method of straightening out our thoughts by focusing in a productive direction. It is also one of the three principles of stress management that will be described in much more detail in Chapter Sixteen.
A lot of our stressful ruminating takes the form of questions: “What happens if I lose my job? What if I can’t pay that bill? What if we don’t make it on time?” Clarifying involves answering these questions and asking others that help us get a clearer picture of our priorities and options.
A student described an incident where he was running late for work. He was becoming more and more agitated as new obstacles (some the result of his increasing tension) made him even later. He described the following process as he was driving to work: “I started doing the Natural Rhythmic Breathing and settled down a bit. When I got stuck in traffic I realized there was nothing I could do to get there faster and decided to try to clarify my thinking. What would happen if I was late? Well, if I tried to sneak in and pretend I was there on time, I could get caught and my boss would be really mad. If I simply came in and told her I was late, she would be less upset. Actually, I am hardly ever late. I got to work, went to my boss’s office, and apologized for being late. She looked up and said ‘no problem” and didn’t give it a second thought. I started working and had a really good day. Later on, my boss came up and told me she appreciated my honesty.”
Clarifying involves asking and answering good questions. It straightens out our mental circles and scribbles and takes them in a positive direction. It helps us accept what we can’t change, see what choices we have, and realize what is most important. We create a lot of stress worrying about things that never happen. Worrying creates extra tension that only interferes with our ability to deal with stuff that does happen. Clarifying helps prepare us for the worst-case scenario. It turns worrying into problem-solving. There is no tension when our mind is focused on dealing with a single issue. Tension builds when we recycle stressors or split our focus. Clarifying prevents the build-up of tension and helps us see the path that works best for us.
Stressful thinking can also involve going over and over past hurts or injustices. Clarifying in these situations can either help us find resolution or lead us to other techniques that can untangle our thinking. One example was a client who was deeply distressed by an injustice and couldn’t sleep because she kept going over and over it in her mind. Clarifying helped her step back from her gnarled thoughts and recognize there was nothing she could do about the situation while lying in bed trying to sleep. She said: “I told myself that thinking this was just making me more upset and then started using my Rhythm Phrase phrase along with the Natural Rhythmic Breathing. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the alarm went off.” We further clarified the situation that had kept her awake by asking “What could you have done differently?” She said she wouldn’t have done anything differently; her actions had interfered with someone else’s political ambitions and they had taken steps to reduce her effectiveness. Other questions followed: “How important was the stand you took? What are the long-term consequences of what happened? What can be done to correct the situation after the fact? What would it cost in terms of time and effort? What is the likelihood you would succeed?” Answering these questions and asking other related questions helped her to reach a decision. Once the decision was made, she was able to stop ruminating and carry out her plan.
Clarifying frees us from mental entanglement by separating issues and looking at them one at a time. It not only stops the build-up of tension from mental stress but re-directs our focus in ways that lead to acceptance and resolution of our difficulties.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.