Are your thoughts helpful?
You’ve probably never been asked that question before. Most folks don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their thoughts. Understanding if your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful in terms of managing your stress is a critical skill you can learn. I spend a lot of time in my Rethink Course showing you how to assess whether or not your thoughts are creating or reducing your stress.
Rethink,as a line of defense against stress, focus on what your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. Since your stress response is triggered by what your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them it makes sense to pay close attention to your stressful thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to psychoanalyze yourself and try to figure out “why” you think the way you do about things in your life that stress you out. What I want you to do is start noticing whether or not your thoughts are helpful.
Let me explain in more detail…
A lot of the underlying research that I used in developing my Rethink techniques comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). As a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy focuses on the connection between your thoughts, and your behavior. In particular, ACT looks at whether or not your thoughts are “useful” or “helpful” in terms of behaving in ways that support your values and your values-based goals. ACT focuses a lot on values and values-based behavior.
Think of your values as the signposts that guide your journey through life. You develop your initial value system by modeling your parents and assimilating the values that guided the institutions (school, religion, community organizations etc.) that you were raised in. As you age and mature you add additional values that spring out of your life experiences. Your values are central to your personality and well being.
High-level mental well-being is strongly associated with being clear about your values, setting goals (school, career, relationship etc.) that are based on them, and then behaving in ways that are consistent with them. Being unclear about your values, setting goals based on what others expect of you, or behaving in ways that are inconsistent with what you value can be very stressful. This is why it is so important to pay attention to how your thoughts relate to your values and your behavior. Do your thoughts support your values or do they undermine them? Are your thoughts helping you meet your values-based goals or are they creating barriers to meeting them?
To help you determine what’s helpful and what isn’t, ACT asks you to consider this basic question: “Are these thoughts helping me act in ways that are consistent with my values and goals?” If your answer is “yes”, you can accept your thoughts and continue to move forward. If your answer is “no”, it is OK to dismiss your thoughts because they don’t help you behave in ways that are consistent with your values and goals.
A key to being able to do this is accepting the fact that all of your thoughts don’t have equal weight. You could lump your thoughts into four categories: (1) helpful, (2) unhelpful, (3) benign or (4) downright silly. Helpful thoughts facilitate behaving in ways that support your values and goals. Unhelpful thoughts undermine taking values-congruent action. Benign thoughts do not influence your behavior one way or the other.
I added the last category of thoughts because even though they could fit into the benign category, they are so ridiculous they really are in a class of their own. For example, as I sit and write this column my mind told me that I should take my clothes off and jump naked, in broad daylight, into my backyard pool for a quick dip. While this is an interesting thought that brought a smile to my face, acting on it might lead to a few problems with my backyard neighbor, The Marco Island YMCA. I decided to pass on it and just chalk it up to my mind telling me silly things again (a fairly regular occurrence). If you start keeping track of your thoughts and feelings for a couple of weeks you’ll be surprised at the percentage of your thoughts that are not helpful to you behaving in ways that support your values and goals.
I use the word behave a lot in my work because your behavior is something you actually can control. While your thoughts and feelings often come and go like the wind and are beyond your control, your behavior, especially how you behave in relation to your thoughts and feelings, is something you can control. You can choose to sit and ruminate over your troubling thoughts and get nothing done or you can choose to do something (behave) that will trigger new, more helpful thoughts and feelings.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to sit and ruminate over troubling thoughts and painful emotions because that is what your mind does. Remember; your mind is a 24/7 thinking and feeling machine. Because of this it is easy for you to sit back and see if your mind can figure everything out in your head instead of taking action and using your behavior to change your thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately sitting back and doing nothing can contribute to getting stuck in a rut. I’ve developed the following activity, Your Mind as a Computer to help you accept the unhelpful ways your mind thinks about stress sometimes and shift your focus off of them and onto productive behavior.
Activity: Your Mind as a Computer
1. Describe a stressor that is causing your mind to get stuck because troubling, unhelpful thoughts about it have created a barrier to moving forward.
2. Tell yourself the following four things:
“There goes my runaway mind again churning out unhelpful thoughts.”
“Like my computer, my mind can freeze up and get stuck when it churns out too many troubling and unhelpful thoughts. “
“It is OK to ignore these troubling, unhelpful thoughts when they stand in the way of taking action and meeting my values-based goals.”
“It is ok to shift my focus off of those thoughts and onto doing something that is consistent with my values-based goals.”
3. Take action: Do something that takes your mind off of your troubling thoughts and is consistent with your values.
In time you will stop wasting so much time trying to figure out “why” your mind behaves the way it does and focus on “what” it is telling you and whether or not this information is helpful. You’ll learn to laugh at your mind rather than take it so seriously and allow it to trigger a stress response.