It’s been quite a long time since I’ve written about one of the core strategies of my work with clients (and with myself): thought management. Managing thoughts can have a miraculous impact on mood, shifting even such powerful emotions as fear, anger, jealousy, or hatred. There are three methods of thought management that I want to write about today.
The first of these is thought blocking. The term is most often used to describe a disorder, as when people with dementia are unable to retrieve a thought. But I’m using it in a different sense, and can probably be clearest about it by giving some examples. Let’s say you’re on an airplane and the plane hits turbulent weather, jostling the passengers in their seats. A baby starts crying. If you’re like me, you might imagine the plane crashing and start looking for the exits, or wonder whether you could survive if the plane did indeed go down. Again, if you’re like me (and like most people), you’ll “block” those thoughts out of your mind as soon as the plane begins flying smoothly again. Planes do crash in good weather, but we send an essentially unconscious signal to our minds to “not go there.” This is in part due to a drop in the level of “vigilance” hormones in our systems (adrenaline, cortisol, and orexin), triggered by the absence of bodily-sensed danger. But there’s also a cognitive process involved. Unfortunately, it’s a process that’s pretty hard to access consciously (although repeated practice of the second method, described below, seems to facilitate the ease of thought blocking).
A second example (again in many, but not all, people) is thought blocking as it relates to aging and ultimately death. People in their 70s and 80s wouldn’t have very many enjoyable moments if they dwelled on their age and impending mortality, but they “choose” not to go there. Finally, when I lived in California I just wouldn’t allow thoughts of the possibility of an earthquake even to enter my mind 99.9999% of the time. By the way it is impossible for you to direct yourself to NOT think a thought, because the second that the thing you don’t want to think about enters your mind, you’re thinking about it. If I say to you: “DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT,” your immediate thought will be of the elephant.
The second method of thought management is thought shifting, about which I’ve written quite a bit (e.g. “Think About What You’re Thinking About“). This method involves first an awareness that the focus of your thinking is unnecessarily negative (e.g. things over which one has no control like earthquakes, the stock market, or a plane crash). Then a conscious choice is made to shift the focus of thinking. To take an extreme example, one Sunday about a year ago I noticed a lump on the back of my leg. My thoughts immediately went to “is this cancer?” and stayed there for a while before I told myself that it was useless and self-punishing to dwell on that thought until I could learn exactly what was going on by seeing a doctor. I couldn’t even make an appointment on a Sunday, so I chose to absorb myself in something else (a movie). In less extreme situations, like worrying that I’ll be late for an appointment because of traffic, I realize that the situation is out of my control and I’ll be happier thinking about something else, for example a recent or upcoming vacation.
The third method is metaphorically holding up a thought for examination and looking at it from several angles. Although I’ve written about this approach before (e.g. “The Trap in Believing your Thoughts“), next time I will outline a very specific methodology, developed by an exceptionally enlightened woman named Byron Katie, author of “Loving What Is”. It is particularly effective at “detoxifying” negative thoughts.