Ever feel like you can’t turn your brain off? Worried about how to stop worrying? We all deal with this when life gets challenging.
There is a way to overcome worry that doesn’t involve alcohol or a straitjacket.
The answer is thousands of years old—but now science is validating those ancient ideas. You’ve probably even heard of it: Mindfulness.
Yeah, it’s all the rage now. But nobody ever seems to really explain what it is or how to do it.
Let’s fix that.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
What is mindfulness? In his book, The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, gives a pretty good answer.
The working definition of mindfulness that my colleagues and I find most helpful is awareness of present experience with acceptance.
You might say: But I’m aware. I’m present. I’m accepting.
And I’d say: No, you’re not.
You’re not aware; you’re staring at your iPhone.
You’re not present; you’re worrying about the future.
You’re not accepting; you’re shaking your fist at traffic because the world doesn’t match the vision in your brain of how it “should” be.
Very often, we’re all stuck in our heads.
We’re not taking the world in; we’re just listening to the stories we tell ourselves about the world, trusting the endless parade of thoughts flitting through our heads instead of actually paying attention to life around us.
One of the fundamental tenets of mindfulness is that we all take our thoughts wayyyyyy too seriously. We think our thoughts always mean something. In fact, we think we are our thoughts and our thoughts are us.
And that’s one of the reasons we worry so much and experience so many negative emotions — because we take our thoughts about the world more seriously than the world itself.
Mindfulness practice brings all sorts of insights into the workings of the mind. Perhaps the hardest to grasp is the idea that thoughts are not reality. We’re so accustomed to providing a narrative track to our lives and believing in our story that to see things otherwise is a real challenge.
You know as well as I do that all kinds of ridiculous thoughts go through our heads. And sometimes you know not to trust them. When you’re tired, drunk, angry or sick you don’t take your thoughts as seriously.
Mindfulness says you should go a step further. Because you have lots of crazy or silly thoughts all the time. And they can make you anxious or bring you down.
(For more on how to never be frustrated again, click here.)
The great psychologist Albert Ellis said we should dispute our irrational thoughts. Great advice—but it can be difficult. You have to be exceedingly rational for it to work.
And sometimes disputing those thoughts can be like a “Chinese finger trap”—the more you resist, the more they ensnare you.
So what can you do?
Observe. Don’t Judge.
Sometimes you can’t easily dispute those worrying thoughts. So mindfulness simply says: let them go.
Mindfulness practice helps us avoid the trap of counterproductive thoughts by learning to let them go.
You can’t turn your brain off. And even if you meditate for years you can never fully clear your mind. But you can see those troublesome thoughts, recognize them, but not get tangled in believing them.
Remember, this practice is not about emptying the mind, getting rid of difficult emotions, escaping life’s problems, being free of pain, or experiencing never-ending bliss. Mindfulness practice is about embracing our experience as it is—and sometimes what is can be unpleasant at the moment… We usually try to feel better by decreasing the intensity of painful experiences; in mindfulness practice, we work instead to increase our capacity to bear them.
And scientific research shows this really works. People feel better and are more engaged with their work after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice.
Dr. Davidson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited a group of pressured workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation for three hours per week over an eight-week period. They compared this group to a similar group of coworkers who were not taught meditation. On average, all of the workers tipped to the right in their prefrontal cortical activity before taking up meditation. However, after taking the eight-week course, the meditating group now had more left-sided activation than the non-meditators. The meditators also reported that their moods improved and they felt more engaged in their activities.
I know, I know: Easier said than done, Eric.
Ignore your thoughts? Let them just float by? Sounds great but how the heck do you do that? Especially when they’re emotionally powerful feelings like worry.
(For more on how to deal with anxiety, tragedy or heartache, click here.)
The key is attention. Yeah, that thing none of us seems to have anymore.
But there’s a way to get it back.
Don’t Distract. Immerse.
While I’m a huge believer in meditation, yes, it can be hard and takes time. Is there another way? Yup.
Next time you’re worrying, remember that your thoughts aren’t real. Life is real.
So turn your attention to your senses. To the world around you. (No, not to your smartphone.)
How does that cup of coffee smell? Did you even notice the people nearby?
Don’t distract yourself. Immerse yourself in the world around you.
The approach teaches people mindfulness practices with a particular emphasis on not taking any thoughts too seriously but rather staying grounded in sensual reality here and now… Instead of fantasizing about the next moment of entertainment, you can turn your attention to the sights and sounds of standing in line, buying a cup of coffee, and walking down the street. Instead of getting frustrated because the train is late, you can study the other passengers (discreetly), notice the architecture of the station, and attend to the sensations in your body as you sit and wait. There is always something interesting to do—just pay attention to what is occurring right now.
(For more on how to meditate and be happier, click here.)
I know what some of you are thinking: The worries keep coming back, Eric. Smelling the coffee didn’t make them go away.
No sweat. We have tools for this.
Noting And Labeling
Rather than dodging, disputing, or distracting (which can all lead to you just wrestling with those ideas further) acknowledge the thoughts. “Note” them.
You’re not avoiding your thoughts. You acknowledge them… and then turn your attention back to your senses. To your breath. To the feel of the chair beneath your butt. To the person next to you.
For thoughts that keep playing like a broken record, try “labeling” them. Siegel suggests giving the thought a funny name that trivializes it: Oh, that “it’s not going to work out” tape is playing in my head again.
When the thoughts arise, label them silently before letting them go. You don’t need very many categories. You might choose labels such as “planning,” “doubting,” “judging,” “fantasizing,” obsessing,” or “criticizing.” The particular labels aren’t crucial; what matters is using them to avoid being captured by stories or repetitive tapes. Once you label a thought, gently bring your attention back to the breath. If you find that your attention is repeatedly carried away by particular stories, try making up a humorous label for them. Give these greatest hits their own names, such as your “I blew it again” tape, “I can’t get no respect” tape, “I never get what I want” tape, and so on.
Sound like silly, hippie nonsense? Well, you know those worries that bring you down and make you sad?
A study found mindfulness therapies were just as effective as antidepressants. In fact, many who practiced them regularly were subsequently able to ditch their medication.
In another, more recent study, MBCT was shown to be as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses of depression and allowed many subjects to discontinue their medication.
(For more on how to be happy and successful, click here.)
O.K., let’s round this up into a simple system you can use.
Here’s how to stop worrying and start being mindful:
- You are not your thoughts. Sometimes they’re downright ridiculous. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true.
- Observe, don’t judge. Acknowledge the thoughts, but let them float by. Don’t wrestle with them.
- Don’t distract, immerse. Do not check your email for the 400th time. Take in the world around you. Turn to your senses. That’s real. Your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself about the world aren’t.
- Note or label intrusive thoughts. Yeah, the thoughts fight back. Acknowledge them. Give the intrusive ones a funny name.
- Return to the senses. Really pay attention to the world around you.
And when I say to pay more attention to the world around you, that doesn’t just mean things. It’s also people.
What ends a lot of relationships? “You don’t pay enough attention to me.”
When we endeavor to let the thoughts in our head go and embrace the world around us, we can focus more attention on the ones we love.
As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, in a number of Asian languages “mind” and “heart” are the same word.
So mindfulness isn’t a cold or clinical process. It might as well be translated as “heartfulness.”
Let the thoughts float by and turn your attention to the people you love.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine and Time Magazine. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 185,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. Join over 185,000 readers. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.