Changing the way you think can be the biggest factor in changing your life. The way you think affects the way you feel, which affects the way you act, which affects every aspect of your life for better or worse. So before moving on to more practical activities to reduce stress and anxiety and improve happiness and well-being it is useful to understand a little bit about the way your mind works and how you can make better use of it to achieve a more harmonious life.
Often it seems like there are two different voices in your head’s. One way of thinking often seems negative or critical, blaming and complaining a lot of the time. But it is also good at protecting you from harm. The other way of thinking seems more compassionate, more creative, more inspired. It’s this voice that helps you come up with a great idea when you are in the shower, or a solution to a problem just as you are about to fall asleep and it’s this one that helps you feel loving, compassionate and open to new experiences. For the purposes of this website, I am going to give these different ways of thinking names to help identify them. The first way of thinking, the protecting from danger type has been called the inner critic, the ego, the editor and the monkey mind. I am going to use the term the ‘fearful mind’ or ‘fearful thinking’ simply because it seems to me that it describes best the way this type of thinking works. The second way of thinking is more focused on embracing good experiences, including good relationships, fun, meaning and purpose and joy. The second voice taps into something deeper: creativity, spirituality, love, peace, harmony and joy. It is often called the subconscious, the creative mind, being, higher self, intuition, the muse, spirit or God. I am going to call it the ‘creative mind’ or ‘creative thinking’. You can, of course use, whichever terms suit you and are most applicable to you values and beliefs.
The first voice is all about everyday life, keeping you safe, looking out for danger. It’s constantly chattering away telling you all the things that are wrong with your life and all the things that could go wrong in the future. It has a negative bias because that is what has kept humans safe from predators and danger throughout our evolution. This voice triggers the release of hormones into your body that prepare you for fight or flight. Unfortunately, when you are stressed or anxious, this voice comes to the fore, trying to protect you. The problem is, this protection is not as suitable for the ‘dangers’ you face in modern life. You can’t fight an important presentation or run from a flat tyre. Many people live their lives almost entirely listening to this voice that worries, criticises and argues about what should or shouldn’t be. It compares things, deciding whether one person or thing is better or worse than another. It can cause feelings of arrogance, thinking we are better than others, or inadequacy, when it judges others are better than us. This part of the mind is concerned with material success, what others think of us and what we think of others. It can cause arguments and wars, breaking down relationships between people and nations. It is this part of the mind that can lead people to believe that acquiring money and material possessions — even at the expense of others — is the point of life and a measure of success. This voice can stop you from achieving loving relationships, bringing dreams into fruition and experiencing joy and peace.
The problem with being focused on the fearful mind is that it tends to focus on the negative and be alert to possible problems, criticisms, and failures. It is good at pointing out what is wrong with things, but less good at coming up with creative solutions. It is not often open to feeling peace and love and joy because it is on the look out for danger rather than seeking beauty and harmony.
Unfortunately, listening to this negative stream from the fearful mind also has an affect on feelings. When it criticises, saying: ‘you’ll never achieve that’ or ‘you get everything wrong’ it leads to a loss of confidence, feelings of depression and hopelessness. Success, joy, and beautiful relationships seem unattainable. Conversely, the fearful mind may blame others for situations it considers unacceptable. When it criticises others, saying: ‘she should have helped me,’ or ‘politicians are all evil,’ it causes anger, resentment and hate. Those feelings are then often acted on, causing arguments, conflict and even violence. When this happens, the world becomes a bleak place. Relationships suffer and life feels very hard indeed. Days become filled with things that must be ‘got through’ or survived. Happiness may seem just around the next corner, but is always just out of reach.
To get a break from this pain, many people attempt to drown out the voice with TV, comfort eating or other addictive behaviours. The problem is that in drowning out the voice everything else is drowned out too including joy, love and creativity. The result is a numbing of the experience of life rather than an embracing of the glorious possibilities it provides.
The second voice has a more calming influence. It tends to create thoughts and feelings of safety and well being and triggers the release of hormones that help us to feel calm and happy. This type of thinking is more focused on what you want to gain rather than what you fear. Human beings have always know about this deeper more intuitive part of the mind and have tried to connect with it in various ways. People have used rituals, meditation, prayer, creative acts, music, dancing, shamanic journeys, worship, sacrifice, myths, divination, fasting, and hallucinogenic drugs to name but a few.
Since the enlightenment, these older ways of being have been dismissed as superstitious, backward and uncivilised. Society and education have focused instead on the rational aspects of the mind with the belief that only what can be seen, heard, touched and tasted with the senses is real and only what can be proven with experimentation exists. This has led to a focus on thoughts over feelings, logic over intuition and doing over being. Society has become focused on the material at the cost of the ephemeral. Productivity, profit, status and material possessions have become the measure of success. Family, creativity, relationships, community, the environment and personal well-being have lost out.
Rectifying the Imbalance
It is possible to control your thinking and use your mind to reduce stress and increase feelings of peace, well-being, love and creativity. You can learn to be more conscious of the way you think by noticing your thoughts more. Don’t simply accept the thoughts that come into your head: analyse them, evaluate them and disagree with them if appropriate. To start with, it is important to understand that what the fearful mind says is not the ultimate truth. Thoughts come and go. Sometimes they are negative and difficult and that can be because of tiredness, hunger, being overwhelmed or dealing with difficult situations. Sometimes the fearful mind makes judgements based on past experiences that are not appropriate to the current situation. For example, your fearful mind might decide that when people go quiet they are angry, based on an experience from childhood. However in the current situation this might not be the truth at all, someone may have gone quiet because they are thinking, planning a surprise, suffering a toothache — or any number of possibilities. The point is, stop listening to the fearful mind as if it is the ultimate truth.
You can choose not to listen to the negative thought. You can just say thank you to the voice in your heads when it offers an opinion and then move your focus onto something else. You can choose to pay attention instead to what you are doing, who you are talking to or what is going on around you. You can focus on the sounds that you can hear, the things that you can see, the taste of the food you are eating or the sensations of a cool breeze or a warm fire. It is possible to take a break from listening to the negative voice in your head. Nothing will be lost by ignoring it for a while. It can be like a child demanding constant attention. You don’t have to give it that attention. You have a choice.
The ideas in this website will help draw attention away from negative thinking and to find a different way of thinking and feeling about the world. Taking attention away from the fearful mind can relax the body, reduce stress and blood pressure and allow space for peace, joy, creativity and love to enter. It is possible to use the body, mind, art, music, nature, hobbies, work and play as opportunities to tune in to a deeper awareness that can lead to peace, joy, creativity and love.
The fearful mind may well set about finding as many excuses as possible for you not to spend time doing the practices in this website. It might tell you that they are a waste of time, woo-woo nonsense, or that you are being lazy and unproductive when you take time out to try them. The trick is not to fight against these thoughts, simply try to let the feeling, irritations and worries be and carry on with the exercise anyway. Accept that you find it hard to still the mind. Accept that you cannot always let go of your worries. Accept the way you are feeling. Don’t feel guilty about your emotions and don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling that way. If it helps, remind your fearful mind that the exercises will make you calmer, more focused and more creative and so will increase your productivity throughout the remainder of the day.
After completing any exercise it can be helpful to write down your experiences, preferably in a journal kept specifically for this purpose. This will help you to reflect on what techniques are the most beneficial to you. Write down how you felt during the exercise, peaceful and relaxed or anxious and distracted? Did you enjoy the process? Did you feel a sense of flow? Did you have any new creative ideas or insights? Make a note of how you feel in the following hours and days, too so you can build up a picture of the activities that help you reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your health, mood and emotions.