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Coping with Quarantine: Watch your Thinking

During this quarantine, do you find yourself stuck in your head a lot?Chances are that if you are like most people, you have been struggling with a number of difficult or unhelpful thoughts. Anxious and worried type thoughts are pretty common these days, as are hopeless thoughts, and all sorts of various types of negative thinking. This is perfectly normal. Your thinking mind often generates thoughts quite automatically, seemingly outside your ability to directly control for very long. Without going into a long discussion of why it is this way, it's helpful to know that your mind functions like a... storytelling machine, threat-prediction machine, pain-avoidance machine.

Don't don't think. Which brings us to a very first tip of the day. Trying to control your thoughts in the sense of "don't think xyz," actually doesn't work very well. So stop trying to getting rid of these negative thoughts by "not thinking them." To illustrate this, try the following little exercise. Step 1 - for about one minute I want you to think about your favorite food or dessert. Really think about it as if it's real for one minute. Don't keep reading until you do step 1. Step 2 - for the next one or two minutes, do everything you can to not think about your favorite food. Now this is really important so I want you to count how many times you think about the food for even a millisecond. Go ahead and try it.

So what happened? Chances are you thought about the food even more, right? This helps illustrate that one of the best things we can do to get out of our heads is to stop fighting those unwanted thoughts and instead learn to relate or respond to them differently. Now, you might be thinking, "well I'll just think about something else to not think about xyz." That may seem to work in the short run, but it's still the same "don't think about _____" and it will have the same effect, keeping you stuck in your head, fighting the very thoughts you want to get rid of.

Thoughts are like clouds. Rather than fighting our "bad" or unwanted thoughts, we can learn to relate to them differently. One helpful metaphor is comparing our thoughts to clouds in the sky. The sky may contain the clouds, but is distinct from the clouds, just as you have thoughts but you are distinct from your thoughts (you are not your thoughts). Clouds come and go on their own and we have limited control over what shows up in the sky. You have limited control over what thoughts pop into your mind and if you let them, thoughts generally come and go on their own. We can learn to watch our thoughts like we watch clouds in the sky.

Labeling thoughts. While we do this, we can also practice noticing what types of thoughts we are experiencing and labeling them. If you try this out, you'll notice something is changed in the experience of the thought when you can say to yourself "Hmm, I'm having a worried thought, that I might lose my job. That's interesting," rather than becoming overly entangled with the thought and thinking "I'm going to lose my job. Oh no!" It's important to remember that when watching and labeling our thoughts we do so in a descriptive, non-judgemental manner. It won't help us to label thoughts as dumb, stupid, or any other pejorative term. Here are some possible helpful thought type labels:

  • Predicting/futurizing - when our thoughts are mostly in the future and are centered around predicting what might happen.

  • Worrying - also when our thoughts are in the future, but more focused on what bad outcomes might happen and what we might do.

  • Catastrophizing - when our thoughts are predicting worst case scenarios.

  • Reliving/regretting - when our thoughts are in the past and focused on something that did not go well, turn our right, or something we regret.

  • Resenting - when we are thinking about things people have done to anger, annoy, or hurt us, and we go over it again and again in our head.

  • Black/White - when our thinking is dichotomous, either/or, all/nothing, and leaves little room for shades of gray and middle ground.

  • Mind reading - when we think we know what people think.

  • Personalizing - when we interpret an even or situation as about us personally in some way when it isn't.

Practice. As you learn to look at your thoughts rather than looking at life through the lens of your thoughts you will become more familiar with your own thinking patterns and find what labels work for you. So practice these three basic steps when you notice yourself struggling with difficult thoughts these days:

  1. Stop fighting against the thought.

  2. Label what type of thought it is, "Hmm, I'm having a catastrophizing thought. That's interesting."

  3. Watch the thought like a cloud in the sky.

I'm betting that if you make this a habit for the next week or so, you will notice that those unhelpful thoughts just don't have the same power and control over you as they once did.

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