by Cara Herring, LCSW
Have you ever spent time really paying attention to your thoughts? There is a connection between what we spend time thinking about and how it makes us feel.
Think about this: what is your first thought when someone mentions the main traffic circle? Just one mention of the traffic circle can lead our thoughts spiraling down a negative road. The circling negative thoughts cause an overestimation of the time spent waiting in line at the traffic circle because we are anticipating being late for an appointment or yelling to the person behind us who speeds off to the side only to jump in line right at the last minute. I have been there too! I challenged myself and timed how long it took from a couple different directions at peak hours. My experiment proved that it took no more than seven minutes from where I came to a stop at the back of the line to when it was my turn to pull onto the circle. This blew my mind. This whole time I had not been paying attention to the present moment because I was too busy letting my thoughts run all over the place. My goodness, only seven minutes! Think how much worse it is in a bigger city, where traffic is often backed up for miles.
So what do we do with this information?
First we have to become aware of our thoughts. What things do we think about the most? To help make this easier, imagine a stream in autumn with many leaves floating down. Imagine that these leaves represent our thoughts. In your imagination, pick one up. You notice this one is brown and missing pieces, maybe half eaten by a bug. You think, “Gross, this one is ugly!” This leaf represents the negative thoughts that make us feel uncomfortable in some way. You can (and we often do) spend more time holding onto that leaf which is going to create ongoing negative thoughts. For instance; “This leaf is ugly, there are so many ugly leaves here, it wasn’t like this where I used to live, there weren’t as many bugs, the people were nicer, the traffic wasn’t as bad and I wish I had never moved here.” This is an example of how one small thought can snowball into something much larger, shifting the mood. Something now triggers you to throw the brown leaf back into the stream and watch it float away. You then bend down and pick up another leaf that’s coming by. Wow! This one is so colorful; orange, yellow and some red. It’s full and is a classic picture of autumn. It makes your thoughts go further in a different direction, thinking of crisp air, a nice cup of coffee or tea, and sitting by the fire with family and friends. This leaf represents positive thoughts we have. The longer we spend with the brown, crumbly leaf, the more uncomfortable we will feel and the longer we spend with the colorful leaf, the more positive we will feel. By nonjudgmental observation, we can develop the awareness of our thoughts.
Second, we practice spending more time being with our thoughts in a kind manner. It’s not a fight. For example, if I asked you to stop thinking of your favorite dessert, it’s going to be quite difficult. In fact, all you’re thinking about now is your favorite dessert. Mine is cheesecake with raspberries and dark chocolate drizzle. Yum! We want to gently refocus that thought by stepping outside, taking a few focused breaths, picking up a book, walking to a different room in the house or anything else that may help refocus. This is exercise for your mind. Just like running a race, completing a sewing project, painting a picture or baking a cake, there are steps involved and most likely, your first attempt will not yield your best work. All of these tasks take practice, including mental exercises.
What’s interesting about a thought is that just because it crosses your mind, doesn’t make it factual. We all have so many thoughts that cross our mind daily. It’s up to you to choose to believe or act on the thought.
Did you know that our eating habits and patterns are affected by our thoughts? Mindful eating is a hip term, but what does it actually mean? Having a mindful mindset means being aware of the present moment, including the thoughts and emotions that are occurring at the time, without judgment. In terms of eating, we need to pay attention to what we are eating by using all of our senses. What does the food look like? How does it taste? What textures are present? What does it feel like? What does it sound like when chewing? What does it smell like? Many times we are in too much of a hurry to take the few minutes to figure out the answers to these questions. We take a bite of the food, figure out if we like it or not and if we do, we eat without thinking any more about what’s on the fork. While eating, we can get distracted with conversation, the TV or our smart phone, a book or our thoughts. Refocus by bringing your attention back to the food every so often, asking yourself some of these questions: Am I still enjoying it? Have I noticed a change in temperature? How much have I consumed? Does this bite taste any sweeter or saltier than the first?
This also is relevant for the cravings we get. A craving is our brain telling us to do something (eat, drink, smoke, look at the phone) because the activity will result in some type of pleasure. Think of cravings as the wind and the person as a sailboat. The wind is a guide that we can’t control but the person can adjust the sails on the boat to move in a different direction. Again, practicing the refocus and awareness that builds a mindful mindset will allow for a better understanding behind the specific cravings. If a person receives a phone call from a family member that makes them upset or anxious they may develop a sudden craving for ice cream. Or a person has had a very stressful day at work, nothing has gone their way and they can’t wait to get home to have a cocktail. A person may feel bored so they turn on the TV and grab a salty snack, eating more than they intended. It doesn’t all have to be uncomfortable emotions either; a birthday or a celebration can lead to overconsumption of cake and ice cream. These are cravings, triggered by emotion, which result in a cyclical pattern. Over time these patterns will negatively affect overall health.
Now, be honest with yourself, how many times did you have to reread a sentence or paragraph in this article because your thoughts distracted you from comprehending what you read? Did you refocus and finish the article? If so, you are already practicing a positive mindful mindset. Keep up the good work and discover how you can apply a healthy mindful mindset to other areas of your life!
Cara Herring, LCSW, is a Health Coach and Counselor at Pinehurst Medical Clinic, Inc in Pinehurst. She can be reached at 910-235-3347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.