Freeing yourself from negative thoughts

Negative thoughts affect our mood and stir up tension in our bodies, says Carmel Sheridan, a local psychotherapist and author.

Negative thoughts affect our mood and stir up tension in our bodies, says Carmel Sheridan, a local psychotherapist and author.

"The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking" - Eckhart Tolle

Samantha, a midwife, loved working with pregnant women. She was highly qualified and experienced yet she often felt that her role was not respected in her department. One night while looking after a patient in labour, a colleague suggested she ask the obstetrician for help. Samantha insisted she did not need his assistance, she could take care of the woman.

She continued with her duties but the words of her co-worker dominated her thoughts. She was annoyed and upset by her comment, viewing it as a slight. It preyed on her mind all night while the patient was in labour and during the delivery of her baby. Normally, she would be fully absorbed in the process but this time it was different. She was distracted and the issue hung over her like a black cloud.

Most of us have been in Samantha's situation at some time in our lives. We have been angered or hurt by something someone said or did and have obsessed over it, replaying the incident over and over in our minds. When we are feeling low or stressed we tend to take things particularly to heart and find it difficult to banish these thoughts from our minds.

"This tendency to obsess in a negative way is known as rumination," says Carmel Sheridan, a local psychotherapist who facilitates mindfulness and training programmes on self-care and compassion fatigue for healthcare professionals.

"It's the same word we use when a cow brings up food it has already eaten, to chew on all over again. That works for our farm friends but doesn't work so well for us humans. Like a broken record we rehash the scenario but while the mind is trying to solve the problem, it actually creates a bigger one by intensifying our negative emotions.

"Negative thoughts affect our mood and stir up tension in the body, interfering with our ability to function well at work and at home. Meanwhile we might waste hours over-analysing the situation. Thinking is a wonderful faculty, but as we saw with Samantha, there is also a downside to it. Our thoughts are often negative and self-critical."

Fleeting images

She says the unsettled or restless "monkey mind" is constantly generating thoughts which may appear as images, sounds, fragments, judgments, or memories. Sometimes, these thoughts pass over us, other times we identify with them, and fall into their trap.

Mindfulness, which involves being fully present and aware of what you are sensing and feeling in the moment, can help release you from the stress of over-thinking, according to Ms Sheridan, the author of three books, Failure-free activities for the Alzheimer's Patient, Reminiscence: Uncovering a Lifetime of Memories, and The Mindful Nurse.

"Mindfulness helps you notice when you are getting lost in thought. From time to time, the current of the waterfall may sweep you in, but once you notice this, you can refocus, step back from your thoughts, and come into the present again. With practice, thoughts no longer bind you and you recognise yourself as separate from your thoughts. This helps you unhook from the content of the thought so you can attend to what you are doing and what is going on around you."

When you practice mindfulness, you are not trying to stop thinking, she says. "After all, thoughts are not seen as a problem. The thinking mind constantly generates thoughts (we think about 70,000 thoughts a day, many of which are repeats of yesterday's thoughts! ). Mindfulness helps you see your thoughts for what they are - fleeting images and sounds arising in the moment.

"We tend to see thoughts as facts because if we think something, it feels as though the thought must therefore be true. With mindful attention, you realise that thoughts are just thoughts - mental processes - rather than the truth.

"You become consciously aware of them with practice. When you are unaware of them, you can be driven by them, and when you automatically believe them to be true, as Samantha did, they can generate unhelpful reactions. Through mindfulness, you develop a different way of relating to your thoughts in that you stop identifying with them, and instead learn to let them be without getting trapped by them."

She encourages people to become aware of their thoughts. When they follow a pattern, this is known as an unhelpful thinking style.

"Usually, they happen on autopilot outside your awareness and become deeply entrenched habits. Because your thoughts affect your emotions and bodily sensations, you may suddenly find your body tense or in the grip of anxiety or anger for no apparent reason. Once you know the most common unhelpful thinking styles, you will be more able to identify your own."

Carmel Sheridan offers the following guidelines to help you recognise your thinking patterns:-

How to identify your most common thought patterns

Jumping to conclusions. When you mind-read, you make assumptions about why something was said or done and conclude that it has to do with you.

Examples of this are if someone yawns while you are speaking, you automatically think that they find you boring. Or if someone appears quiet, you think you might have offended them.

Magnification and Minimisation. "When you magnify, you undermine yourself and magnify the positive attributes of others.

An example of this would be: "Why would anyone congratulate me on my patient care award when they know it's only a popularity contest?"

Should/Should not. You set impossibly high standards and then you berate yourself when you cannot reach them, such as saying "I know I shouldn't complain because I should be used to all this stress." Or "I should go to work even when I am sick so I don't let down my co-workers."

All-or-Nothing Thinking. This involves seeing everything in either black or white. "I made an error, I think it is time to give up my job" is an example of this type of thinking.

Mental filter. This thinking pattern means you have tunnel vision and focus on the negative aspects of a situation or yourself while ignoring the positives.

Personalisation. This is when you blame yourself or take responsibility for everything that goes or could go wrong, even though it is not your fault or responsibility. An example of this is saying: "All the bad stuff happens to me when I'm working. Everyone else seems to get off easily."

Catastrophising involves blowing things out of proportion and assuming something terrible is going to happen.

Over-generalisation. The psychotherapist describes this as using a negative aspect of the past to back-up negative conclusions about current or future situations.

Labelling. This involves assigning negative labels to yourself and others such as describing someone as unreliable and saying they would take a day's sick leave if they have a sore toe, for example.

Emotional reasoning. This means basing your view of yourself or situations on the way you feel rather than the facts.

Ms Sheridan says if you identify with some or all of these unhelpful thought styles, do not fret. From time to time, we all think in unhelpful ways.

"Mindfulness helps you shine the spotlight on negative thought patterns that have run rampant and unchallenged in your mind for years. Start to identify your patterns so you can loosen their grip on your life."

 

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