Have you ever wondered how many thoughts we have in a day? It may seem impossible to calculate, but actually, we do have an answer. In fact, psychologists at a Canadian university have quantified the average number of daily thoughts an adult has as 6,200.
This figure seems to confirm that we spend a lot of time in our heads. And there are plenty more studies to confirm this. For example, an article published in Science magazine reported that we spend more than 46 per cent of our waking hours thinking about things that aren’t related to what we’re doing in any given moment.
Of course, thinking isn’t all bad and letting the mind wander can have its benefits. However, from a mental health perspective, it’s important to be aware of the content of our thoughts, and of the impact they can have when we let them run loose. Negative self-talk and rumination are real problems. Indeed, back in the early 2000s, researchers at the United States National Science Foundation estimated that 80 per cent of our thoughts are negative, and 95 per cent of them are repetitive.
Looking at these statistics, it’s easy to understand how much our thoughts can affect our quality of life and potential for enjoyment.
Get out of your head: you are not your thoughts! shutterstock/G-Stock Studio
Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud once asked, “Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” Although this complex question has no definitive answer, there’s one thing we know: your thoughts leave a footprint in your mind. Sometimes, they can become a part of your identity, but here’s the thing: you are not your thoughts.
We all have the ability to control our thoughts and moderate their impact. In this article, I’ll explain why you are not your thoughts and how you can curb the effects of negative thinking on your everyday life.
Self-talk, brain chatter, mental noise… whatever we call it, it's important to understand that allowing certain mental patterns to take control can be harmful.
Well-being is a matter of balance. If we spend too much time focusing on thoughts, we run the risk of tipping the scale too heavily in one direction. In other words, if we think too much, that can mean that we’re acting too little, and life requires a healthy balance between thinking and acting.
“If we don’t control brain chatter, we may end up losing sight of what’s real and what isn’t. Thoughts are not facts, and you are not your thoughts.”
Moreover, if we don’t learn how to curb our negative inner dialogue, we can expose ourselves to unnecessary suffering and unhappiness. Living in our heads and dwelling on our thoughts can lead to rumination. This potentially toxic habit can cause multiple mental and physical health issues, from depression to high blood pressure, including insomnia, anxiety, and excessive alcohol consumption.
Rumination is everything but productive. When we enter this state, we’re more likely to get trapped in cyclical thoughts and to believe we have no power to act on whatever is worrying us. The result is a pessimistic and passive outlook on life – the opposite of the healthy belief that you are not your thoughts. And while we’re stuck ruminating about the past or the future, we’re not acting in the present, which is the only thing over which we have some degree of control.
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Another danger is that if we don’t control brain chatter, we may end up losing sight of what’s real and what isn’t. You must remember that thoughts are not facts, and that you are not your thoughts. Let’s look at how to do this.
First, identify what causes the problem. Keep a diary of your thoughts to see if you can find any patterns to when they appear or what triggers them. Common triggers are watching the news, mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds, and monotonous or repetitive tasks, like cleaning or driving the usual commute.
Once you’ve identified the triggers, think of something that will keep your mind busy when the thoughts appear. For example, if this happens when you’re driving, make a habit of listening to uplifting podcasts about happiness or audiobooks. A digital detox can be a real eye opener and a big step in helping you realise that you are not your thoughts.
The second suggestion is not to suppress those thoughts completely. You don’t want to encourage the “don’t think of an elephant” effect. Instead, give yourself 15 minutes a day to calmly consider your worries. Set an alarm and once it goes off, remind yourself that you are not your thoughts, and carry on with your day.
It can also help to take an active approach to your worries. Write them down and think about what can you do about them. You may want to use brainstorming techniques to be creative with problems instead of letting them define your life.
If uncontrolled thoughts have become mental noise that drains your energy, you can learn to silence them with mindfulness. This practice trains our brain to observe thoughts instead of automatically acting or reacting on them. Here is an exercise suggestion:
After the mindfulness exercise, you can also try to find out the intention behind those thoughts. Every emotion has a positive purpose, but sometimes our mind doesn’t allow us to see it, because it goes into rumination mode automatically. For example, anxious thoughts could signal a need for self-care and protection. Sadness can prompt us to adjust to new circumstances and develop new tools to thrive.
Whenever negative thoughts make you feel anxious, find some quiet space to be present in the moment. You can sit or lie down in a comfortable position and focus on how your body feels against the floor or chair, taking your time to do a body scan from head to toe. If brain chatter tries to intrude, be firm and say you are in charge now. Remember: you are not your thoughts and your thoughts aren’t always a reflection of reality.
“If brain chatter tries to intrude, be firm and say you are in charge. Remember: you are not your thoughts and your thoughts aren't always a reflection of reality.”
Repeated mindfulness sessions can help you win the fight between a restless “monkey mind” and the logical or rational mind. Over time, you’ll notice how your power to deflect unwanted thoughts improves, and how the idea that you are not your thoughts becomes a reality.
One last suggestion is to work on self-acceptance. It takes time to get hold of your thinking habits and to fully understand that you are not your thoughts, so don’t be too hard on yourself in you don’t get it right 100 per cent of the times.
And don’t forget to look over previous blog posts, where we listed great mindfulness podcasts to keep you motivated or explored different ways of incorporating mindfulness into your daily life.
Negative self-talk can make it hard to believe that you are not your thoughts, and mental noise can be draining. But as powerful beings, we have the resources to be in control and to stop letting our thoughts dictate how our mood and actions. Try the suggestions in this article, and if in doubt, remember: you are not your thoughts, you’re much more than that! •
Main image: shutterstock/Dragana Gordic
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A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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