The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.
– Richard Feynman
“Did I turn it off? I think I did…But wait, what if I didn’t? The house will catch on fire. Fine, I’ll turn around and go back to check. Shit, now I’m gonna be late again. I need to get better at waking up earlier so I’m not always late. If I did that, then I could start doing the exercise videos too. I’d have more energy and finally lose some weight. I’ll start that on Monday…”
Have you noticed there is a voice in your head that is constantly talking? It provides running commentary on what you’re doing with your day, feeds you a list of things that you “should do” but currently aren’t doing, and gives you a hard time about some of your less than impressive moments from the past.
It’s routinely said that we experience 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day. Now, whether that is true and how researchers actually measured that is unclear, but what we can be certain of is that the majority of these thoughts are useless and often negative in nature. But, it’s also important to recognize two other points – that thoughts are also automatic and habitual in nature.
People usually come into therapy with a goal of getting rid of or at least reducing negative thoughts. They feel tormented by their mind and are looking for a solution. I get that. I am living with one of these lovely machines called the mind as well!
However, where we can make a wrong turn from the outset is thinking that the solution lies in CONTROLLING the mind. Some will assume that there is some special skill out there that some people possess, but that they apparently don’t, that will help them pick and choose what that voice in their head tells them.
That is a myth that we have to dispel from jump street. Research shows that there is a domino effect that takes place in the mind. We are driving down the road, we see a green 4Runner, which triggers the thought of an old girlfriend, which brings on a cascade of memories, which causes us to question (for the 1,000th time) what “could have been,” and on and on it goes.
This alone is a topic that we could spend all day on. However, if you question this notion, try an experiment. Sit quietly for 5 minutes and just wait to see what that voice in your head says to you. When a thought comes up, ask yourself why you “decided” to think that. Recognize that you didn’t, it just came up! Automatically. Research backs this one up as well as it’s been shown that the brain produces a thought 10 seconds prior to our awareness of it! This brings into question the notion of free will, but that is a conversation for another day…
All I now know is if I had any control over what this voice says, I would forever hit delete on the thoughts tinged with cynicism, jealousy, and anxiousness and I would replace those with bliss, joy, and compassion. All the time. But, alas, that is not how it works, so we have to figure out a different way.
The last point to recognize is that thought is habitual. It is reported that once a thought enters the mind 50 times, neural pathways develop that make it easier for the thought to arise in the future. It’s like walking down a dirt path in the woods — the more you do it, the more worn the path becomes, and the easier it is to traverse it.
This can be easily verified in experience as well. If you are prone to worry, ask yourself if what you worried about yesterday is the same thing (or at least in the same ball park) as what you worried about the day before and the day before that and the day before that? If it is different, it’s probably because a new, more pressing concern has entered your life and you probably got a sneak peak at what you will worry about for the rest of the week, at least until that issue is resolved and the mechanism repeats itself. The mind is like a dog chewing on a bone and it loves to go back to that bone over and over again.
So to recap, there is voice that is constantly talking in our heads. That voice is like a playlist on repeat. We don’t choose the tracks. We can’t turn it off. And it’s negative by design. Fantastic news, right?
In Part 2, we will talk about what in the actual hell we can do to find relief!
If your playlist is particularly tormenting you right now, reach out to talk about how therapy can help.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more, visit www.richmondanxiety.com.