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Wellness Matters: Hanging on to negative thoughts? Don’t, try mindfulness instead

By Jan Carden
KyForward columnist

We all struggle with negative thinking – negative thinking about our work, our bodies, our financial situation, other people, the meal we just ate, politics, the future, something someone said to us, events in the past.

It’s seemingly endless.

But it’s not surprising. We are hardwired to track and to hold onto negative information more so than positive information. If four people say nice things to me today and one person scowls at me, then I’m more likely to remember the scowl at the end of the day and forget the positive things that were said, for example.

If you hang onto a negative interaction and experience negative thoughts about it (why did they do that?), then you are also more likely to experience a negative feeling, such as sadness, worry, shame or resentment. And if that negative feeling persists, then you are likely to experience a negative mood. If a negative mood goes on for too long, then I am susceptible to developing a mood disorder.

Most people are aware that negative thoughts bring on negative feelings, which can result in negative moods, which can then sometimes result in depression or anxiety. Thoughts affect feelings, feelings affect moods. Once a person is depressed, once he or she has spiraled down into the mind’s dark place, it is often a challenge to recover. And, unfortunately, once someone has had an episode of depression, they’re prone to have another one.

Mental distress is a significant concern. The World Health Organization estimates that 450 million people worldwide suffer from a mental health illness. By 2030, WHO predicts that depression will be the world’s most common illness.

Cognitive therapy helps one identify thoughts that are distorted or irrational. The premise is that by identifying those thoughts and developing more helpful ways of thinking, one can begin to move out of depression.

But there’s a problem. Altering our thoughts and thinking in a clearer, less distorted way is not easy. If you have thought a certain way over and over, if you’ve developed certain ways of thinking about things, then it’s going to be difficult to change. Often we are not even conscious of the habitual thought patterns that occur.

Because these thoughts become habituated and frequently operate in our unconscious, people can sometimes fail to respond to cognitive therapy. And that then becomes another source of distress for people. So not only do they experience negative patterns of thinking and resulting negative moods, they then experience frustration and helplessness for not being able to turn their thoughts around.

A different approach to target habitual patterns of negative thinking is to cultivate mindfulness of thoughts. In mindfulness, one learns to be aware of his or her thoughts and to not get caught up in those thoughts. It’s much like observing the sky and watching the clouds go by. We don’t judge the clouds nor do we engage with them. We just observe them pass by.

There are some estimates that a feeling only lasts 90 seconds. We sometimes experience the feelings for longer periods of time because we get hooked by them and associate thoughts and even stories about the feelings we are experiencing. By being mindful of our thoughts, we can identify when a negative thought arises, acknowledge the thought without any judgment and then watch it pass by. By avoiding engaging with, or attaching to the thought or judging the thought, we avoid the suffering.

How does one achieve mindfulness? Daily meditation cultivates mindfulness. In meditation, you sit and focus on your breath or a word or phrase (a mantra.) A thought or string of thoughts will inevitably arise. Rather than judge the thought or engage with the thought, you will acknowledge the thought and then return to the breath or mantra.

It is recommended that you sit down to meditate. It helps to designate a specific time every day to meditate and to sit for shorter lengths of time, such as five minutes, in the beginning and then gradually increase the time.  

Whenever you notice that you’re distracted, make a mental note, “thinking,” and then gently turn your attention back to the breath or mantra. You can then practice mindfulness of thoughts throughout the day.

It helps to identify one pattern of thinking, such as worrying about tomorrow, and then to be aware when this pattern of thinking comes up and gently turn your focus to your breath. This retrains your brain and reduces negative thought patterns.

In being more mindful of our thoughts, we lessen the chances of a negative mood. By practicing mindfulness we develop more compassion and joy in our life and we markedly reduce the chances for mental health problems. The lovely part about this practice is it is always available and it continues to grow. What a gift we can give to ourselves and to those in our lives.

Jan C. Carden is a licensed clinical social worker at Access Wellness Group in Lexington where she provides individual and family counseling. Jan works with adolescents, families and women. She uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness in her work and specializes in issues related to addiction, trauma, depression and anxiety. Carden lives in Lexington with her husband. She has three grown children and one granddaughter.

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