Welcome to the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness series. This is part three of a series of four articles offering basic ways to cope with treatment for serious illness. This installment discusses how to manage difficult thoughts.
Read part one | Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Getting Grounded
Read part two | Dealing with Difficult Emotions
It is really interesting how our minds never stop thinking. Just tune in for a few seconds and you will discover that you have a cast of characters and a running dialogue just about all the time.
We all have a wide range of mind movies: horror, drama, romance, and comedy, to name a few. Our brains are pretty creative. After all, it is the mind’s job to keep a running narrative about your life and try to make sense of things. Your mind is a pretty good story-telling machine. That is a good thing when it comes to creativity and imagination, but it can be troublesome when your mind gets caught up in fears and anxieties. And coping with a difficult diagnosis takes up a lot of head space.
Alec, who was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, reflects on his experience with negative thinking:
“I used to sit in my hospital bed and try to imagine what I would be doing in school instead of being at the hospital. Would I be playing sports, going on hikes, reading a book, doing some board games, going to class, maybe even getting a date? But instead I was in a hospital bed and my friends were all going on without me.” – Alec, diagnosed at 19
Getting a difficult diagnosis—like cancer—can have a big impact on the way you think. There is a lot of uncertainty, and sometimes thoughts get stuck and do not go away. Those are called “sticky thoughts” and if they’re negative, they can turn into fears and worries and keep you stressed out. Of course, it is impossible not to think about these thoughts! We may make judgments about our situation or people in our lives. We can become our own worst critic, too.
You will come to see that your thoughts are only as powerful as the power you give them. Being mindful of our thoughts allows us to understand their influence and learn how to work with them effectively so that we are no longer ruled by them. Our minds have the habit of focusing on the negative as a means of survival, but we know that we have both outside and inside resources to help us shift our focus.
Practice: Quieting the inner chatter
The following is a meditation script on managing negative thoughts. Read it to yourself and try practicing on your own.
It takes some effort to notice what’s going on and to quiet the inner chatter. Begin by bringing your attention to the body and to the breath, noticing the rhythm of your breathing and sensations of your body. The more you tend to the body, the less the thoughts of the past or concerns about the future will pull you away from the present.
Mindfulness meditation is not about not thinking. It is a practice of coming into a wise relationship with your thought process. You begin to notice the themes and stories that float in your mind at any given moment. One simple way to start is to label your thoughts. This shifts attention from the details of thoughts to the process of thinking. For instance, you can shift from planning your schedule to simply saying to yourself, “planning.” Or, if you notice you are having an internal conversation, you can name this, “Thinking.” Or “Storytelling.” Or “Remembering.”
For the next few minutes, tune in and practice naming or recognizing the qualities of thought that start to pull you away. It may be planning, judging, rehearsing, worrying, analyzing or moving from one kind of thought to another.
Our minds are in constant streams of stories. Notice your particular thought patterns and bring them into awareness. Gently name them and return attention back to this moment, your awareness of sitting or breathing. And when the next thought arises again, name it “thinking” and release the thought. Return again to the moment, your breath and your body. Simply begin again. If your thoughts are particularly strong, sometimes it can be helpful to just open the eyes a little. To look down, gaze with soft eyes, and simply be aware that you are present in this moment, in this room, and then close the eyes again. When you are ready, you can bring your attention back to the room and the happenings around you.
As you bring the practice to a close, notice if you feel any more clarity or ease as you pay attention to your thinking process.
After you practice tuning in to your thoughts, something starts to happen. You start to notice that your thoughts are only as powerful as the power you give them! Now you know how paying attention to thoughts in a particular way can help you deal with troubling thoughts. You may notice a new kind of clarity in your mind and insight into habits that take you away from the the simplicity of the present moment.
Try this for five or ten minutes a day. You can even set a timer. Give it a try and start to relate to your mind in a curious and kind way. With no judgment. That can be pretty freeing!
Read more from the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness Series:
[Part 4] Practicing Self-Kindness
7 Ways to Manage Negative Thoughts and Emotions | Psychology Today
How to Grow the Good in Your Brain | Greater Good Science Center