Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel … like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!
We humans are thinking experts. We really are quite brilliant at it. Our powers of thought have enabled us to rise to the top of the food chain and dominate the Earth despite our (let’s face it) less than impressive physical prowess. Thinking is basically what separates you from the neighbour’s cat and the seagull currently desecrating your car windshield.
We are thinking constantly, whether we realise it or not. Some experts estimate that we have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day. Our monkey minds are providing an endless stream of interpretations, explanations and judgements in an attempt to make sense of our surroundings – it’s an essential function that defines us as a species and creates our lived experience.
But as with any complex operating system, things can go wrong. Our advanced cognitive abilities can malfunction and actually start working against us, causing us to suffer. The mental habits that have evolved to keep us alive can become our tyrannical overlords, controlling and ultimately even destroying our lives.
The problem is not that we think. The problem is that very often, we forget that we are thinking. We take our thoughts too seriously, mistaking them for reality, and in doing so are dragged away from actual reality into a warped world of our own creation.
An unfortunate side-effect of human evolution is that we are programmed to pay far more attention to negative thoughts than positive ones. In our hunter-gatherer days, the uptight caveman who was always listening out for the sound of a hungry predator would have had a much better chance of survival than the optimist who was content to lay back and smell the daisies. We modern humans face entirely different day-to-day challenges, but our brains are hardwired to protect us from sabre-tooth tigers. In today’s world we are more likely to be harmed by our own stress response than by any external threat, but our prehistoric brains simply don’t know any better.
So our minds are producing a constant stream of thoughts (potentially 3,000 per hour), and our Palaeolithic programming causes us to naturally filter out the positive ones in favour of the negative.
It’s no wonder we get so stressed out.
I am particularly prone to negative, obsessive thinking, and in the past this has led to debilitating depression and anxiety. I know as well as anyone just how convincing a thought can be, and how easy it is to become trapped in a downward, destructive spiral of negative thinking.
I also know the profound sense of freedom that can come when I remember that my thoughts do not represent reality.
It sounds so obvious, but learning to mistrust your own mind takes some serious practice.
All the wisdom, strategies and techniques I use to keep myself mentally healthy and happy are founded upon these simple but profound realisations:
My thoughts are just thoughts. They don’t represent reality.
My mind will naturally focus on the negative, which means I can’t trust my thoughts to be objective.
Just because a thought enters my mind doesn’t mean I need to pay it attention.
I have to remind myself of these every single day. But often that brief reminder is all it takes to bring me out of a downward thought-spiral and back to reality.
P.S. I need to make one thing very clear: if you are struggling with a mental health issue of any kind, find someone to talk to. Seek help. You are definitely not alone, and there are qualified professionals who are used to dealing with precisely the sort of thing you are experiencing. I am a massive believer in the benefits of education and self-help when it comes to mental health, but this should never replace professional, medical help when its needed. (Note: Of course, any muppet can write a self-help book. Discretion required.) Think of it this way: we can learn how to stay healthy by vacating the sofa once in a while and easing off the Dunkin’ Donuts, but that doesn’t mean we don’t go to the doctor when we think something’s not right. Same thing with mental health. Learning to help ourselves is crucial, but so is being unashamed to seek outside help when we need it.
Images via Pixabay