We commonly tend to ascribe too much meaning to our thoughts. After all, they’re largely responsible for guiding us through our daily lives, and we’d be lost without them; so why wouldn’t we naturally assume our thoughts to be all-important? While this is true and thoughts are important, falling into this fallacy overlooks the nature of how the brain works and the purpose thoughts serve. Antiquated views coming out of the Renaissance era venerating the importance of the mind and intellect over lowly emotions don’t help either, but that’s neither here nor there. (I happen to believe that emotions are equally as important, for the record.)
So how does the brain work?
Everything we think creates and strengthens neuropathways (connections) in the brain. The more we think things, the stronger, faster, and supercharged these thoughts become (they can even become super fast and sneaky, therefore subconscious and we might not even notice them anymore). All this relates to physical structures that are set up in the brain and reinforced the more you practice a skill or thought (hence why practice makes perfect).
Why does this matter to you?
Well, if we know how our brains work, we can harness this knowledge and put it to use when things aren’t working for us, for instance, when our thoughts aren’t serving us well. I see this amongst my clients all the time. Clients come in clinging to their old beliefs that may have once served them well, but are now causing terrible anxiety or depression. And it’s often very difficult for them to consider that alternative perspectives might have some validity (because their brains are used to thinking this way, not because what I’m suggesting is necessarily false). My work is often influenced by a mindfulness-based perspective, which sees the mind as having evolved simply to produce thoughts to make sense of our surroundings and keep us safe, just as the heart has evolved to pump blood, and our lungs have evolved to circulate oxygen within us. Mindfulness adopts a mechanistic view of these functions. From this perspective, we see that if our brains have been practicing thinking a certain way for a long time, they will automatically gravitate to thinking that way whether it’s true or not in our present situations. But we tend to make the mistake of believing the thought whether it’s relevant to the present situation or not! (Think of our tendency to make false assumptions based on past experiences.) In this way, our past references colour our interpretation of the present and the future, which is essentially how we make sense of our surroundings. But we can’t let this thinking process totally control us. That’s when we get into all kinds of mistaken beliefs (Google the 15 most common cognitive distortions for example).
So how can you use this information?
Notice when you’re having repetitive distressing thoughts. Next time they come up, instead of automatically believing them, pause and notice your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Be curious about where the thought is coming from. Perhaps it’s just an “old tape recording” from the past. Is it serving you well? If not, simply note that your brain is really good at thinking that thought, that it’s not necessarily true, and mindfully resume what you were doing before you were rudely interrupted by the intrusive thought. Or use mindful distraction (i.e. activities carefully chosen based on their likelihood to have a helpful outcome for you). Note that this is a skill that requires practice, and it will take time for your brain to get used to thinking this way. If you need more support in this practice, join a mindfulness meditation group in your community, such as MBCT or MBSR, or I’m happy to connect with you for a counselling session to discuss this in person. Good luck and be well!