Let’s Talk About… Thoughts

By Jeremy Godwin

How do you manage your thoughts in a healthy and objective way? How do you identify the difference between fact and fiction when it comes to the things that go through your mind? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of practical advice for better mental health.

So, get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 20 March, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 123, I’m Jeremy Godwin and thanks so much for joining me!

This week I’m talking about thoughts and I’ll be covering what thoughts are (and what they’re not), why understanding your thoughts matters, and how to manage your thoughts in a healthy way. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

The 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes, published a simple line back in 1637 that is still very well known today (especially if you happen to have ever taken any classes in philosophy or sociology) and that line is, “je pense, donc je suis.” Now before I explain what that means, a quick apology to any French-speaking listeners as I’m sure I just ruined your beautiful language with my Australian accent, so please forgive me.

That simple line translates roughly into English as “I think, therefore I am” and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s one of the fundamentals of sociology and the study of human society (and I distinctly remember having to write a very long and boring paper on it as a first-year student). Why are we still talking about Descartes’ simple phrase nearly 500 years later? Because it’s not actually all that simple. Yes, the fact that we have the capacity to think defines us as human beings… however we’re not the only ones who can think about things; just ask my cat who manages to think about new and inventive ways to evade us each morning when it’s time for his medication because it’s quite clear that he thinks it’s fun.

We tend to define ourselves based on who we believe we are, but a lot of that is driven by our thoughts and emotions and so the thing there is that our so-called ‘self-knowledge’ isn’t completely accurate because not all of our thoughts are actually true; I mean, I think I can belt out a tune when I’m driving my car, but even my tone-deaf ears are well aware of the fact that I have somehow managed to find my own unique key (and it’s not one that anybody really wants to hear).

So let’s explore some definitions and let’s talk about…

What are thoughts?

And it’s a bit of a longer definition today than I would normally do, because this is actually a bit of a complex subject. 

A thought is an idea, notion or opinion that goes through your mind during the act of thinking (which can happen either consciously or subconsciously). To quote the American Psychological Association (or APA), “[thinking is] cognitive behavior in which ideas, images, mental representations, or other hypothetical elements of thought are experienced or manipulated. In this sense, thinking includes imagining, remembering, problem solving, daydreaming, free association, concept formation, and many other processes. Thinking may be said to have two defining characteristics: (a) It is covert — that is, it is not directly observable but must be inferred from actions or self-reports; and (b) it is symbolic — that is, it seems to involve operations on mental symbols or representations, the nature of which remains obscure and controversial…”

And you’ll find the link to that article in the transcript for this episode, available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes (find it here: https://dictionary.apa.org/thinking).

There are three reasons why I shared that great-big long definition. First, because it highlights that thoughts are things that go on exclusively inside our heads and so we can never truly know what others are thinking, only what they choose to share with us… which is a real pain in the backside, but it’s one of those fundamental things in life that you have to get your head around and make peace with otherwise you’ll just torture and torment yourself. Secondly, I shared that definition because it notes that much of our thought is symbolic in nature; in other words, many of our thoughts aren’t actually true in the literal sense and instead they can often be meaningful purely in terms of what is being represented or implied.

And the third reason I shared that long definition? Well, because I thought it would be a good idea. And that’s the thing: a lot of our thoughts are about us trying to make decisions so that we can identify what we could and should do next. It’s our way of processing the world and trying to rationalise all of the different options available to us, which are then all filtered through the lens of our values, beliefs, prejudices and needs. In other words, it’s the type of mind-bending philosophical stuff that probably kept Descartes busy for years (and a whole bunch of other philosophers).   

And so the main thing you need to know about thoughts is less of what they are and more about what they are not: thoughts are not facts. This is something you will have heard me say in many of my podcast episodes and I say it over and over again because, quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest things that we have to get our head around when it comes to dealing with mental health challenges. Because when we’re dealing with conditions like anxiety or depression, sometimes our mind can seem like it’s actively working against us and trying to make us feel even worse about ourselves than we might already… but our thoughts are not facts, and so in a few minutes I’m going to talk about how to manage your thoughts. First, however, we need to dig a bit deeper into this whole thought thing, so let’s talk about…

Why understanding your thoughts matters

And it matters because we can sometimes find ourselves dealing with unhelpful thoughts, which can take us out of a sense of calm and peace of mind and therefore do harm to our overall wellbeing. To explain what I mean, let me quote from an article by HeadsUp (which is an Australian workplace mental health organisation); the quote is: 

“Sometimes the way we think or talk to ourselves is negative or unhelpful. Thoughts can increase distressing feelings or make us feel like we’re not coping… [some] examples of common unhelpful or negative thoughts that we’re all guilty of from time to time [are:] Black and white thinking [such as] “I must get everything done today before I go home tonight, otherwise everything will be a complete disaster.” […] What ifs? [e.g.] What if I put all this effort in and fail? […]  Leaping to conclusions [e.g.] My colleague was abrupt with me today… [they] must be angry with me about what I said at the meeting […] Looking too far ahead [e.g.] If this doesn’t go well there are all sorts of bad consequences [and more]”

Source: https://www.headsup.org.au/your-mental-health/taking-care-of-yourself-and-staying-well/thoughts

And that article is linked in the transcript.

So the piece here is that we need to find ways to challenge unhelpful thinking with more helpful thought patterns (and I’ll discuss how to do that in a minute). Before I do, I have to emphasise that the reason why I’m saying we need to challenge these types of negative thoughts is that negative thinking can lead to stress and a more pessimistic outlook on life (something I talked about back in Episode 31, about mindset, and Episode 47, about optimism… plus I’ll leave a link to a great article by the Mayo Clinic in the US about how positive thinking helps with stress management if you’re interested: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950). 

The other thing to be aware of is that your thoughts and emotions are interrelated and they have a direct impact on your physical health; I’m going to quote from an article from the University of Minnesota in the USA to explain what I mean. The quote is:

“Emotions that are freely experienced and expressed without judgment or attachment tend to flow fluidly without impacting our health. On the other hand, repressed emotions (especially fearful or negative ones) can zap mental energy, negatively affect the body, and lead to health problems… It’s important to recognize our thoughts and emotions and be aware of the effect they have—not only on each other, but also on our bodies, behavior, and relationships… Poorly-managed negative emotions are not good for your health.”

Source: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-do-thoughts-and-emotions-affect-health

And the link for that is in the transcript. 

The other bit we need to talk about is intrusive thoughts. These are odd and often disturbing thoughts or images that can pop into your head at seemingly-random moments. They’re often confronting, especially if they are of a violent or sexual nature or if they’re fear-based. Very often you might try to push the thought away which usually just serves to make it even more persistent. It can be related to conditions like anxiety, OCD, PTSD or even be something that occurs in the postpartum period for new parents, but these types of thoughts can affect anyone because they are just random thoughts that have no meaning. Sometimes things just pop into our brain for no particular reason and it doesn’t mean you are a bad person or that there’s something wrong with you; like all thoughts, it’s a case of whether or not you choose to let them dominate you or if you choose to let them simply pass. However I will say that if it’s happening on a regular basis and you’re finding it difficult or impossible to ignore them, then it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional because it could be related to a physical or psychological condition that requires proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Moving on… your thoughts, feelings and behaviours shape your life, which is why learning how to manage your thoughts matters. So with the exception of those types of unyielding intrusive thoughts, how do you begin to approach the way you think about things, consciously or subconsciously, in an objective way so you can manage your mental health and wellbeing? Well, that’s a great question that I’m about to answer in the how-to part of this episode! So, let’s talk about… 

How to manage your thoughts in a healthy way

And my first point is: begin by increasing your self-awareness — and this is about getting to know yourself better so that you can identify where your strengths and challenges lie in terms of the way you think about yourself and the world around you. How you talk to yourself shapes the way you think about yourself so get to know yourself better and identify if you tend to default into negative thinking or positive thinking, because your general mindset about life plays a big role in shaping your thoughts and feelings. I’ve talked about a few topics that will help you do all of this: self awareness in Episode 62, self talk in Episode 9, mindset in Episode 31 and feelings in Episode 28, so check those out for more specific advice. One very effective way to increase your self awareness and self knowledge is with my next point…

Learn to observe your thoughts — and by this I mean that when you are thinking something, you can take 10 seconds or so to gently breathe through it (rather than immediately reacting) and then you can remind yourself that your thoughts are not facts; just because you think something about yourself or a situation, that doesn’t make it true. For example, in one of the quotes earlier on I mentioned about the times where we might think a work colleague is upset with us when in actual fact it’s more likely that they’re busy or distracted or just feeling some type of way about something going on in their job or their life in general. When you can step back from your thoughts it can help you to be more objective and less driven by pure emotion because it helps you to remember that your thoughts are not always true (and, in fact, I’d say they’re not true quite a lot of the time!). And speaking of, my next point is…

Know that other people are thinking about you far less than what you think they are — because I hate to break it to you, but they’re just not. I guarantee you that most people are far too busy thinking about themselves and what other people are thinking about them to even consider what it is that you think they might be thinking about you. And as for the small percentage of people who are thinking about others, well… they just need to get a life, because honestly who has the time for all that type of toxic nonsense?! Look, our egos try to make everything about us but the fact is that everyone’s ego is doing that, which automatically means that not everything is about us! Sorry to burst your bubble here, people, but the Earth doesn’t revolve around you (just like the Sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth). I talked about ego back in Episode 68 so you might find that helpful to explore this concept in a bit more detail. And that leads to my next point…

Remember that not all thoughts are helpful — because they’re not. Some of them are just our brains trying to make sense of things, others are just random thoughts that come and go for no reason other than the fact that that’s a weird thing that our minds do. Instead of letting your thoughts control you, learn how you can take control of them. One way to do that is with my next point…

Remind yourself that your thoughts only have power because you give them power — and so that means that you can choose to harness them for positive purposes or you can choose to harness them for negative purposes; what you decide is what you get. All that you are and all that you will ever be is determined by your choices, and so this means that you need to be the one to push yourself forward by finding ways to challenge thought patterns that are not helpful or which are doing harm to you. Which leads to my next point…

Actively challenge negative thoughts — and by this I mean to consciously sit and look at those types of thoughts and consider what the likelihood is that they’re actually true. This is something I do often with clients in their sessions, where we might take a particularly toxic type of thought and really confront how unrealistic it is; for example, when we might think that doing something could result in our lives falling to pieces, we can instead look at other times where we’ve taken calculated risks so that we can see that things are rarely as bad as we think they will be when it comes to taking chances and trying new things in life (which was the subject of Episode 5). Consciously challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones helps you to view the bigger picture so that you can see that your fears or concerns are very unlikely to come true (and, by the way, I talked about fear back in Episode 10). A great way to do that is with my next point… 

Write it out to get it out — and to explain this one I want to stop for a minute and get you to do a bit of visualisation, if you’ll humour me for a moment. Now, assuming you’re somewhere safe and are not driving, riding or walking, I’d like you to take just 30 seconds to close your eyes and I want you to picture an indoor squash court… you know those ones with the big glass wall and the shiny flooring where every squeak of your shoes echoes around the enclosed chamber. Picture a squash ball being hit against the solid back wall at high speed, and consider what happens next: that ball will keep on bouncing around that room for what feels like an eternity until either (a) someone hits it and starts the process all over again or (b) it eventually runs out energy (which will depend on how much force was used to hit it). If it were hit hard enough it could, in theory, bounce around that room for the rest of eternity like an absolute menace — so I want you to visualise that psychotic little ball bouncing around faster and faster in that room, picking up speed… now, slowly open your eyes and as you do, consider that what you just visualised is what your thoughts can often do in your head if you leave them to their own devices. With enough force behind them, they can bounce around for absolutely ages (even, sometimes, picking up more and more energy as they go along). The way to stop that is to grab the thought (like the squash ball) and stop it, and you do that by channelling that energy out of your body by writing it down. If your thoughts are bouncing around in your head, grab a pen and paper and start writing to get that energy out; write and write and write until you eventually run out of energy, then put it aside and do not look at it. Instead, go and do something different somewhere else: go for a walk, sit out in the garden, make yourself a coffee or tea… whatever works for you. This is about having a circuit-breaker that tears you away from that never-ending bouncy energy and in addition to that, the whole point of using pen and paper is that it helps to physically channel that energy out of your body (because if you don’t get it out then it stays inside you, bouncing around like that demonic squash ball we just visualised). Speaking of writing things out, another helpful tip is…

Keep a thought journal — and this is about taking the previous idea one step further by having a dedicated place to record your thoughts so that you can get them out (and you might even like to lock in some regular time each day to sit and write as a means of getting your thoughts out, especially the unhelpful ones). Again I’m going to say to use paper and pen here, because it’s just not the same physical release of energy when you use your phone to type notes, and then I’m also going to say that once you write whatever it is you’re writing you should (a) immediately go and do something else in a different room or a totally different location (if you can), and (b) don’t look at what you wrote for at least a few hours (if at all). Here’s the reason why I say that: when you’re in that emotional headspace and there are thoughts happening which might not be all that helpful, the last thing you want to do is start to try and pick them to pieces while you’re still feeling all the emotions attached with them… so taking a physical break away from them for a while helps the emotions to simmer down so that your rational, logical brain can join the party and help you to see the bigger picture much more clearly. Look, you don’t even have to go back and read them (because this is more about getting the energy out); I use a spiral-bound notebook where I can easily tear the pages out and there are some days where I do this and then just rip it out and either tear it into pieces or burn it to get rid of it (if you’re going to do that, please do so safely — the last thing you want is to lose an eyebrow or two). Whatever you choose to do, having a dedicated thought journal allows you to have a place where you can physically release your thoughts (especially the unhelpful ones) on a regular basis. Another way you can do that is with my next point…

Talk to someone — and this is just another way of getting it out, this time by finding someone you trust and feel comfortable with to confide in. I will say that it’s always helpful to have a friend or loved one who we feel safe to talk to about stuff, but those people are not going to be able to be objective with you and they cannot ever be, because they have an emotional attachment to you. This is why I often suggest in these episodes that you find someone professional you can talk to on a regular basis — whether that’s a therapist, a counsellor or a coach — because that provides you with a judgement-free place where you can talk about things in a more objective and considered way. Think of it like a gym membership, where instead of paying to use equipment for your physical fitness you’re paying to do a workout for your mind (and I will say there are services available at all price points, so it’s not as expensive as a lot of people think). 

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to thoughts and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When you think about your thoughts, you might often think that what you think is always true… but it’s not. Our minds do some weird and wonderful things as we try to make sense of the world around us and the world within us, and a lot of our thoughts that bubble up to the surface can be negative and destructive if we choose to let them control us. Your thoughts are not facts and they only have power if you give them power. You cannot avoid negative thoughts, only manage them… so instead of spending a lot of time and energy trying to fight those thoughts, instead choose to use that energy to observe your thoughts more objectively so you can label them as being just thoughts, rather than facts. That takes away their power and it enables you to let go of unhelpful thoughts so that you consciously turn your attention to helpful thoughts instead.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the Buddha, and it is:

All that we are is a result of what we have thought.”

Buddha

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Next week I’ll be talking about guilt. Guilt is one of those unpleasant emotions that can follow us around for months or even years after something has or hasn’t happened in our lives, and learning how to process guilt in a healthy way is fundamental to restoring and maintaining your wellbeing. So next week I’ll be talking about what guilt is, why understanding guilt matters and how to manage guilt. 

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 27th of March, 2022. 

And catch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).

And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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