It makes sense that people trust their thoughts. Just like the omniscient narrators from TV shows like “The Wonder Years” and “Burn Notice,” we use the little voices in our heads as navigators to lead us from one situation to the next.
But we’re not omniscient. Not only do we not have the advantage of a script or hindsight, we are often wrong. Sometimes our thinking can even be the problem. So if the thinking is the problem, how can we get our heads around that?
A common cause of depression is comparative thinking. This is when a person keeps running over a scenario in their head, comparing things how they are with things as they wish they were. It’s this kind of circular thinking — when we have no control over the actual outcome — that sends people into a downward spiral.
When I read that recently, it got me thinking. Buddhist monks try to snap their students out of this vicious cycle with puzzles called koans, like this koan on circular thinking, “You can’t catch a net with itself.”
So if you can’t trust your own thinking to solve your problems, what can you do? Website Zen Habits offers the following in its article “6 Practical and Powerful Ways to Overcome Depression” by John Van Sicke.
1. Get outside.
2. Aerobic exercise.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids.
6. Watch your thinking!
While one through five seem like common sense, this last one speaks directly to the theme we’re exploring here. Van Sicke expands on the idea. “Anti-rumination strategy is vital to breaking out of depression and other emotional ruts.
Become aware of those times you dwell on the negatives in your life – both real or imagined – and stop them. It takes work and persistence but if you constantly tell yourself to ‘stop it’ when you start to go over and over the negatives, then you are building a positive habit that will change your life for the better.
Whether it’s the jerk who cut you off in traffic or something a little closer to home, don’t give yourself the luxury of a negative thought.” This brings to mind something I learned back in school: your mind believes whatever it hears the most. In a concrete way this illustrates how negative thoughts do harm. Don’t let them outnumber the positive thoughts. The first step in controlling negative thoughts is to get a handle on them.
“Know that it is possible to control the quality of your thinking. That contributes more to how you feel than any other factor. It is a widespread but false belief that you have to change your feelings in order to change how you think; it is actually the other way around,” writes Hara Estroff Marano in a Psychology Today article entitled “Depression Doing the Thinking.”
According to Marano, “The act of writing down instances of negative thinking is an exercise in focusing that helps make you aware of the triggers.”
This is important because while we often pay a lot of attention to our feelings, it’s much harder to discern the underlying causes that send us through our days like ping pong balls helplessly bouncing wherever our emotions take us. This turns us into victims of our own emotions letting them affect our quality of life.
One last thought — did you know that when a person smiles, physically making a smile on their face whether or not they are truly happy, — it actually releases the same endorphins into the blood that make us feel happy?