We all know how powerful our emotions can be. They sometimes seem to take on a life of their own and leave us feeling out of control. There are times when you won’t be able to get yourself out of negative emotions by thinking your way out. I have had to learn this lesson a few times before it finally sunk in that it’s true. There is a direct correlation between how bad you feel physically and how negative and depressing your thoughts can be. If, for example, you come down with the flu and you really feel down physically and your levels of energy are very low, it is very likely that you will also feel a corresponding low sense of overall well-being that will influence your thoughts. I have noticed this time and again whenever I come down with the flu or when I am physically tired or irritable. I feel physically down and it clouds my thoughts and my reasoning to such an extent that I might actually start to believe the load of rubbish that is going on inside my head! I’m really learning that this is a one-way street to misery and unhappiness. What goes on inside your mind when you are physically low is a big show about how miserable and horrible your life is and that there is no end in sight!
What we are actually doing in these instances is basing our thoughts about our reality around how we are currently feeling without any reference or even the ability to reference the objective reality of our lives. This is called emotional reasoning (i.e. I feel therefore it must be so!) You think that just because you feel bad, things must be really bad. And the more you try and think your way out, the more you think about your life, the more the negative irrational thoughts keep flowing through your head! So, what can we do about it?
There is a cardinal rule when it comes to these types of situations and it’s very complicated, so read carefully and get your pen and paper out. The cardinal rule when you feel so low and your life just looks like a bad movie that won’t end is…..
Don’t spend one more minute trying to think your way out of it. Just stop thinking. Make the decision — and you can even tell yourself verbally — that you have decided for the rest of the day to not think about anything important. How easy is it to do? It’s damn hard, let me tell you, but it’s well worth the effort and the resulting feeling of letting go and relaxing about your life. There may be a hundred real issues that you may need to deal with, but when you are really physically not at your best, you have to make the mental decision to avoid thinking about anything that is of major importance in your life. I call these days “mind-stop” or “cruise control” days. Slip your mind into neutral and just let the day happen by itself.
If you want to think about something, think about a movie you’ve seen recently or a funny thing that happened to you the other day. Think about your dog or a beautiful place you’ve been to. Run back a mental movie of yourself walking through the woods or sitting on the beach watching the waves. Or even better yet, don’t think, picture, or visualise anything at all! Do you think you could do that? Like I said, it’s not easy, but it can be done. There’s no doubt that it can be done. It’s a skill that you can learn like any other skill — the ability to just be, to not judge your life or anything in it for a few hours. If you are working on something, just focus on that one thing. If you are taking the dog for a walk, just focus on doing that activity. It’s like Zen Buddhism — you know, the concept of “when I am chopping wood, I am chopping wood and when I am carrying water, I am carrying water.” I am not carrying water and thinking about the hundred and one things I need to do tomorrow or how horrible I feel or how hopeless everything feels at the moment. JUST STOP IT! The opposite of the Nike slogan! Be easy on yourself. When you feel that low physically and emotionally, you need to treat yourself well. You need to take some action that will nourish your soul and make you feel good about yourself. Take a hot bath, go for a long walk, take a ride on your bike, or play with your pet if you have one (that’s my favourite). By doing these things for yourself and taking care of yourself as a parent would a child who is sick, you will find that after a while you “wake up” from this world of just being and doing and you feel remarkably better. You feel more calm, more centered and at peace with your life. The reason is, you have given yourself that much-needed mental break from the incessant negativity going on in your mind and your mind calms down and allows itself to be more positive and focus on other things.
Just recently I had a prime example of this when I was having quite a bad day and was really feeling frustrated and down emotionally. There was nothing really major going on in my external world that would lead to me feeling like this, so I knew that I had to take action and that I had been spending too much time in my head and not enough time using my body and being out in the world. So I immediately stopped what I was doing, got into exercise clothes and went for a bike ride. After a thirty-minute bike ride, a few push-ups and sit-ups (which I never do enough of), and a cool shower, I felt completely different. My thoughts were now spinning with ideas and possibilities. My energy levels were up and I was clearly in a much better place emotionally to carry on with the day. It works, I know it and you know it too.
I am not saying that one should avoid emotion and feeling one’s emotions. Not at all. There are times when you
can, and indeed must, tap into your emotions and feel them fully because to bottle them up and try to avoid feeling any emotion is very dangerous for your mental well-being. Genuine emotion, which is related to a stressful life event, should be felt and dealt with. We all need to go through the process of grieving and healing in order to move on in a healthy manner from any sad or tragic event in our lives.
Even in these times, however, one may get to a point where the body and mind need a break from all the pain and the hurt and this is where the practicing of “just being” can be helpful. Even if it’s only for a few hours, it can be very necessary and helpful to decide to stop thinking for a few hours and just be.
On a lighter note, this technique of “thought-stopping” can be utilized anytime, anywhere. Whenever you feel like you just need a break from all the thinking going on inside your head, just make the decision to stop. Start a process of being aware of your thoughts instead of just letting them ride roughshod around in your mind like some crazy motorcycle gang on drugs, and then begin to let them go and let them leave your mind.
Let me, if I may, give you another personal example of how I apply this in my own life. When my ex-wife and I moved to London from South Africa, we left behind all our friends, all our family, our jobs, and everything we love and care about. We left behind all our possessions. Our entire social fabric was stripped away from us as we made the decision to emigrate. On the scale of stressful life events, I think emigration falls just under the death of a spouse as one of the most stressful life events that people can go through. I can attest to that because we went through it — not once, but twice in a period of two years! One day in London I came down with the flu on a Sunday morning. I thought it would go quickly but it stayed with me for a few days. On the third day I was feeling really sick. Physically, my body was in revolt, saying that it would like to get off the ride please. My thoughts started to rumble, like the first signs of a thunderstorm on its way, and I started to think really negatively about moving to London. Everything I thought about seemed to be bleak and I started to feel down not only physically but mentally. And that becomes a double whammy when it’s in its full throes as I‘m sure most of you will no doubt have experienced. Luckily, I quickly realised what was going on and what I was doing to myself and I made the mental decision that I was not going to think about any important issues in my life. Just the realization alone of what was going on and why I was feeling so bad and thinking so negatively was enough to bring me out of it.
So you see, you can change your mind (and your life) with even a simple technique such as deciding to just stop for a while and take time out from thinking. Again, you may need to practice this form of mindfulness but be persistent because it is well worth it.
All the best and Good Thinking!