Monday, 3 Oct 2022

How to get comfortable being alone with your thoughts

I have a problem: I can’t be alone with my thoughts.

I’m not being dramatic. I literally put on a podcast to brush my teeth, even if it’s just going to take me two minutes.

Walking anywhere without headphones is dire straits, purely because I’m forced to listen to the constant chatter of my mind as it goes on and on, around and around in circles.

Perhaps you experience something similar? Experts share everything to know.

A symptom of anxiety

This habit of interrupting – or blocking out – an inner monologue at any chance is likely a symptom of high-functioning anxiety, says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll.

‘If someone has high-functioning anxiety, it means that, although they meet the criteria for having anxiety, they can still manage all their daily activities, like going to work, personal care and family duties,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘This does not mean, however, that people’s symptoms aren’t challenging, rather that from the outside no one else may realise an individual is having difficulties as they appear to be managing their lives as usual.’

Rather than giving in and drowning in anxious and uncomfortable thoughts, people with high-functioning anxiety are more likely to distract themselves, be it by taking on too much work or relistening to every episode of a certain podcast.

And, ultimately, this option is endlessly easier than the alternative, which is dealing with those thoughts. 

The path of least resistance

‘Pretty much all our actions are rooted in two basic survival mechanisms, which are learned very early in life and consequently drive all our habits: avoiding what makes us feel bad and doing more of what makes us feel good – more reward and less punishment,’ explains Valerie Stark, a certified yoga and meditation teacher and a neuroscientist.

These mechanisms, she tells Metro.co.uk, are tightly connected to the dopamine system in our brains, which is always geared towards quick and easy fixes. 

‘The path of least resistance that provides you with an immediate boost of dopamine without putting too much work into it is always a preferable choice if there isn’t an alternative, more sustainable habit in place,’ she continues.

‘This is why when overwhelming or unpleasant thoughts are present, we avoid them by switching to something that can be instantly rewarding such as TV.’ 

An unsustainable solution

The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s a short-term fix to an ongoing problem.

As Dr Meg notes, if we keep pushing down our thoughts, our anxiety is going to become increasingly heightened. 

‘You can do this in the same way as you’d strengthen any muscle,’ Dr Meg continues.

‘Start slow, set a timer and sit with your thoughts uninterrupted for just two minutes to “exercise” your mental tolerance. 

‘If this feels uncomfortable, help your body manage the stress response with deep breathing techniques, which will activate the stress-reducing parasympathetic nervous system. 

‘Writing down thoughts and feelings every day can be helpful also.’ 

Valerie suggests using mindfulness to create space between yourself and your thoughts.

She says: ‘Mindfulness practices allow you to become a non-judgmental witness of your own thoughts and emotions by creating space between you and what you think, therefore changing your point of view.

‘So “I’m anxious” becomes “I experience anxiety”, “I failed” becomes “I experienced failure”. 

‘This change of the cognitive perspective is a wonderful way to befriend your own thoughts and learn a lot about yourself, particularly about those things that may be holding you back in life.’

How to get comfortable with your thoughts:

Dipti Tait, a solution-focused hypnotherapist advises the following things:

Think of yourself as the thinker of your thoughts

This will remind you that you are in charge of what you are thinking, rather than the thoughts randomly happening to you. 

This way, you will be able to take control of them, rather than them controlling you. 

Notice the difference between thoughts and feelings

Our thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked. 

Our thoughts create feelings when we are in a logical head space.

Our feelings create our thoughts when we are in an emotional headspace. 

It’s useful to notice this difference and practice being in both spaces at once. 

Replace negative thoughts with positive ones

Our thoughts are powerful and can be helpful and useful, but also can be damaging and detrimental. 

If you catch yourself downward spiralling with a negative thought, you have a small window of opportunity before it becomes a problem. 

You can reverse the negative spiral and pull yourself out of the negative mindset with practice. 

The way to do this is to ask yourself “What would a better thought be right now?”’

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