Place your hand right in the front of your face. Now hold it there.
What do you notice? How far can you see? What do you miss out on when your hand is right up to your face? How tired might you get if you had to hold it up here for a minute, an hour, all day? Would you be able to watch your favorite show this way? Would you be able to hug your loved ones? Would you be able to engage in or even see the things that are most important to you?
Thoughts can be like this. They can be right in front of our face making it difficult to engage in the things that are matter the most. They can be all consuming, pulling us far away from what important to us. They can pull us into the past that no longer exists, forcing us to spend years reliving unpleasant moments and wondering how things could be different. They can pull us into a future that had not yet happened and may never even occur, leading us to spend hours worrying and stewing about future events and tasks. They can even impact our present, coloring it with false predictions, judgements, and evaluations that simply aren’t true.
But what if I told you there were ways to make some room, add some distance, and gently place your thoughts on your lap? Your thoughts are still there…You can still see them, but they aren’t consuming the whole picture. Here’s four ways to help you decrease stress and anxiety by adding flexibility to your thoughts.
- First, identify a thought that’s distressing to you and write it down. For me, I can often get caught on the thought “I’m going to make the wrong choice.” Anyone who knows me, knows I can be incredibly indecisive. This fear shows up in a lot of different ways and can greatly impact my behavior. For example, when purchasing a new coat, I’ll keep the tag on and keep the receipt for an absurd (judgement) amount of time just in case I want to change my mind. I’ll spend hours and hours going through the pros and cons of various decisions, only to confuse myself more. I’ll ask as many people as possible in my life what I “should” do or what they would do, only to get frustrated with them because I’m a different person than they are and make different choices. I even try to convince myself that there’s not a “wrong” choice (which I do believe) but that doesn’t stop the thought from coming up. The harder and harder I fight, the stronger the thought is.
- Next, try to label the thought for what it is. For example, “I’m having the thought that I’m going to make the wrong choice.” Notice how it feels different from saying to ourselves “I’m going to make the wrong choice.”
- Imagine your thoughts coming and going like clouds passing through the sky. They can be there but we don’t need to buy into them. How freeing would it be to have the thought, “I’m too anxious” and still do it anyways. Your thoughts don’t get to dictate your behavior, you do.
- Lastly, imagine your thoughts are like the car warranty scammer or a story that you have heard a million times. “Yep, I’ve gotten this call before. I’m just going to let it go to voicemail.”
These techniques for decreasing anxiety and stress can help us separate and distance from our thoughts, letting them come and go instead of getting caught up in them. Thoughts are simply just that – thoughts. Hold them lightly.