A thought is a thought

The average person has over 60,000 thoughts a day (according to Dr Fred Luskin at Stanford University). Of those 60,000, 90% of them are repetitive – through the day and from previous days! That’s amazing isn’t it? The thoughts we have are a mixture of positive, negative, fearful, guilty, happy, angry, kind…you get the picture. The good news is that it’s totally normal.

I have been reading ‘Being Human’ by Dr Amy Johnson who writes about ‘thoughtmares’ and how and why we think about things. It’s a fascinating read…anyway, I came to this passage:

“I got up to change the baby’s diaper last night and when I came back to bed, something seemed off about my husband. He seemed to be sleeping unusually still. I couldn’t hear or see him breathing.  My mind immediately raced to what life would be like if he were dead.”

I totally relate to this, I do it all the time particularly with my other half cycling in London and with my kids when they sleep longer than I was expecting, especially in the early days. One part of my brain telling me it’s all fine, the other spinning horror stories; completely out of control. Everyone’s imagination does this and the story doesn’t matter, what matters is how we deal with it. Sometimes we replay them over and over, each scenario building on the last; other times we think it ‘must’ be a sign or that we need to do something e.g. stop my partner cycling to work.

The problem with all of this is that actually a ‘thought is just a thought’, just like a nightmare is a nightmare and when we wake up from a horrible dream we come to realise that, acknowledge and dismiss it from our mind. I have learnt two crucial things about thought in the last 3 years of studying mindfulness:

  1. Thoughts are not real
  2. Thoughts come and go in the mind

We don’t need to do anything with them – I repeat – no action required. We might observe them but we should (ideally) pay no heed to them and for the most part we don’t…because I bet you have been wondering how you keep track of 60,000 thoughts. In fact, if I asked you to ‘remember’ some of your thoughts today you would probably only manage 100 max.

There is a problem though, thoughts are strong so it’s not easy to stop thinking about our thoughts. If I said to you “Do NOT think about a pink elephant”, a pink elephant would be the first thing that you think of. This is why thoughts can be so strong, by trying not to think them you will think them more. The thoughts we remember depend on the mood we are in, so when we are happy we tend to remember happy thoughts and likewise, when we are unhappy we remember the more fearful and negative ones. This is particularly relevant if you suffer from anxiety and/or depression.

Is there a solution for dealing with negative thoughts? Of course, there is more than one but none are quick fixes, they will all take practice and time. Try these and see which works best for you:

  1. In order to process your thoughts (specifically negative ones), you must allow them to come and to think them. Acknowledge the thought and remember that it is just a thought, it is not real and having it does not require you to act upon it. Once you acknowledge the thought it often disappears.
  2. If you prefer, let the thought come, sit with it and feel it then give it a positive ending. Repeat until it becomes automatic.
  3. Practice changing your reaction. It is a choice how you react to a thought; stay curious and open to the suggestion that it is possible to have different reactions to every situation that you come across in life. There are other ways to look at these thoughts rather than just in a fearful way.
  4. Acknowledge the ridiculous or negative thoughts that pop into your head, chuckle at them, and then release them.

These are all practised in mindfulness and staying curious is important. Note how you feel and where you feel your thoughts, literally, in your body – are they causing pain? tension? This moves the focus and helps distract you and crucially re-wire the brain to find a better way to investigate the thought constructively without spiralling.

There are some practical things you can do to increase your positive thinking too:

  1. Take up exercise
  2. Meditate
  3. Smile (this is particularly useful when networking or doing an interview incidentally)
  4. Surround yourself with positive people
  5. Remember you are good enough
  6. Use positive affirmations/quotes
  7. List 3 things you are grateful for right now
  8. Practice living in the moment (if you are struggling with this – watch a child)

I know it sounds a little fluffy to practice positive thinking but it really does work and it’s backed up with research too! Barbara Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina and her research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.

So I shall leave you with this:

Be careful of your thoughts,
for your thoughts become your words.

Be careful of your words,
for your words become your actions.

Be careful of your actions,
for your actions become your habits.

Be careful of your habits,
for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character,
for your character becomes your destiny.

— Chinese proverb, author unknown


4 thoughts on “A thought is a thought”

  1. hi there, can you please tell me where you found that statistic of Fred Luskin’60, 000 thoughts? I’m a grad student and this is exactly the kind of research I’m into.


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