Liberate yourself from repetitive, unhelpful thought patterns in 5 steps
The human brain makes up just 2% of total body mass but consumes 20% of our energy supply. Whether we’re doing calculus, or relaxing in the bath, this figure only changes by a few percent. What is it doing at “rest” that requires so much energy?
Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University, was troubled by this finding. He wanted to know which parts of the brain were active during different tasks, so he’d have preferred a brain that did nothing at rest. Instead, he found a constantly busy brain with a “default mode”.
The brain regions involved became known as the “default mode network” (or DMN). This hungry, energy-consuming network is the house of the self. And what does the self like to do? Think about itself, think about others, relive the past, and worry about the future.
An untamed DMN can make your life miserable. It can keep you awake at night with anxious ruminations over when this COVID nightmare will end. It can distract you from the task at hand by playing painful memories on repeat. It can hinder your happiness in life as it runs through the same negative thought loops telling you that you’re a bad person, that you need to lose weight, and that you’ll never be successful in life.
But the same network, if tamed, can be of great benefit. It can provide “aha!” moments of creative insight as you mull over ideas on your morning walk. It can enhance your ability to learn as you run through new concepts from the webinar you just watched. It can imagine future scenarios, like how you’re going to negotiate that promotion with your boss. And it can analyze past events so you’re better prepared for the future.
The problem isn’t that we have this network of constant activity. The problem is that we’re forever losing control of it. Our mind takes us on wild rides without our consent. Often we’re not even aware this is happening, as we’re too wrapped up in the drama unfolding in our mind’s eye. Even if we do realize and decide we want to get off the ride, we may be unable to.
COVID-19 continues to test our ability to cope with being left alone with our own minds. Too many weeks in lockdown have led many to genuinely wonder if they’re starting to “lose it”.
Maybe you’re stuck in a tiring thought loop of questioning if your life will ever be fun again. Or maybe you’re ruminating over how lockdown is affecting your children’s mental health, while your own mental health deteriorates.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The negative thought patterns we get stuck in are the result of a malfunctioning DMN. We can learn how to gain more control over our DMN, and free ourselves from getting stuck in habitual, unhelpful patterns of thought.
Through the taming of my own wild mind, and my patients’ minds, I’ve found methods that work. Seeing as we’re stuck with this brain for the rest of our lives, it’s probably worth learning how to get a handle on it.
So whether it’s to relieve yourself of the mental anguish your DMN is inflicting on you, or to gain an edge over your constantly daydreaming competition, this article will show you how to tame a wild and boisterous DMN, into a docile and obedient DMN that you can work with.
How much of the time are you aware of your own thoughts? Most of us are too swept away in the chaos of life to even know what’s going on around us, let alone within our own minds.
Making a conscious effort to observe what your mind is doing is the first step toward taming it. Try and do this at times when you’re undisturbed by the external world, like on public transport or on a quiet walk. See where your mind takes you, and how you get there.
You’ll probably be able to do this for a moment before you hop on board the next thought train and forget entirely what you were doing. That’s OK. When you regain awareness, try and recall the sequence of thoughts that swept you away. Then start observing again. Try and maintain awareness of your thoughts, without interacting with them.
Remind yourself throughout the day to watch your thoughts. Setting reminders on your phone can help, or linking it in with something you do every day — while in the shower or on your morning walk.
Get into the habit of “labeling” the type of thoughts you’re having: there my mind goes “analyzing” the social interactions of the day; now it’s “planning” what I’m going to have for dinner; off it goes “worrying” about my weight. Try not to judge your thoughts as good or bad, just acknowledge the nature of them.
Keep doing this and you’ll soon gain an understanding of how active your mind always is.
You may find you tend to latch on to thoughts and not let them go. The mind has a tendency to get stuck on things, repeating them like a broken record as if there were some benefit to doing so. But rather than benefit, this “perseverative thinking” is linked to depression and anxiety disorders, where rumination over the negative is the name of the game. You’ll learn how to break free of these traps later on. For now, just keep observing them.
Mindfulness meditation is the best way to get into the habit of observing your thoughts. The approach is to adopt an attitude of openness, curiosity, and kindness towards your own mind. This encourages a detached and non-judgmental way of observing.
Even five minutes a day can make a big difference. Start with guided meditations, I’d recommend Sam Harris’ introductory “Waking Up” course. For a free option, “Smiling Mind” also offers an excellent course in mindfulness. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to do it on your own.
Try and make a habit of it. When you meet resistance, remind yourself that you’re stuck with this brain for the rest of your life. It determines how you respond to emotional stress, physical pain, challenging social situations — any difficulty you may encounter. It’s the instrument through which you interact with the world, and how you make any decision in life. So make sure to give it some tender love and care for at least a few minutes a day.
Most people take the time out to train their physical body, but few take the time to train their mind. It’s no wonder we’re forever getting stuck in negative thought patterns. Meditation is the gym for the mind, it will keep you in shape mentally and emotionally. All it requires is to sit down every day and observe — much easier than any gym workout.
Once you’ve practiced observing your mind regularly enough to find yourself doing it automatically, you’re ready for the next step.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) our thoughts are seen to become “fused” with the self. We don’t recognize them as separate entities. They become part of us, which means wherever they go, we go with them. Given the chaotic and unruly nature of thought, this is an unsettling prospect.
But the reality is that thoughts are just temporary events in the mind. When we observe them and don’t interact with them, they tend to dissipate. It’s only when we engage them — question their meaning or respond to them — when we become “fused”.
Once “fused” these thought-forms have the potential to become a persistent part of the narrative we call “my life”.
We get tangled up in our thoughts because we have a yearning for “coherence”. We want our minds to be ordered and for everything to make sense.
But thoughts are often contradictory. We might think “I’m a good person because…” and then think “but doing this makes me a bad person”. So we try and resolve these contradictions through constant analysis.
We’re presented with a chaotic stream of thoughts, and our mind tries to find meaning and impose order through more thinking. The end result is a compulsive addiction to thought.
Certain thoughts are “stickier” than others. Some are easy to let go of, while others we can’t resist responding to. Thoughts are like clickbait, they try and engage you by flashing extreme, emotionally charged content in your face. To resist their pull is to go against evolutionary wiring that compels us to investigate further.
Thoughts that trigger an emotional response tend to be the “stickiest”. The emotion is our brain telling us “this is important”, and we should look into it further. The emotion then drives even “stickier” thoughts, and soon we lose any awareness that they are merely events in our mind. We’ve become “fused”, and our thoughts are now the absolute reality we face.
But never fear, ACT offers some excellent techniques to “defuse” ourselves from our thoughts. Here are the ones that helped me the most:
- If you’re having a recurring thought that’s bothering you, write it down on a piece of paper. Hold it up to your face. It’s hard to see what’s in front of you, right? Slowly move the paper away from your face, until it’s at arm’s length. Now you can see what’s right in front of you, while the thought sits in your periphery. Observe how the thought is now separate from you. You’ve just “defused” yourself!
- Visualize the thought as an object. Whenever a thought pops into your mind, imagine it floating directly out in front of you. What does it look like? It might be small images, it might be a fluffy cloud, it might be written words. Observe the thought and how it plays out, noticing how it’s separate from you. Whenever I do this I observe small moving images that quickly fade away.
- If you’re good at visualization exercises, you can try the “leaves on a stream” technique. It’s best done closing your eyes in a comfortable place. Imagine you’re sat by a gently flowing stream with leaves floating by. Each time a thought comes into your mind, place it on a leaf and watch it float downstream. Keep doing this as thoughts come into your mind. If you notice your mind has become “fused” with a thought, gently “unfuse” it from your mind and place it on a leaf.
Do these exercises a few times until you’re familiar with what it feels like to be “defused” from thought. You’ll begin to see how readily your mind “fuses” with certain thoughts and loses its grip on reality. Understanding this intrinsic feature of the mind will change how you see your thoughts and protect you from their spell.
Now that you’ve learned how to “defuse” yourself from your thoughts, it’s time to master the art of “detached mindfulness”.
When we learn to see thoughts as separate from our self, we become more mindful. Those who regularly practice mindfulness meditation become aware of the components that make up conscious experience. They’re able to decode the constant stream of sensory inputs, thoughts, and emotions that make up our experience of life and see them for what they are. It’s no longer one big mindless blur of chaos.
“Detached mindfulness” has similarities to mindfulness meditation, but is an evidence-based psychological treatment that is part of metacognitive therapy (MCT).
MCT is a relatively new therapy that focuses on managing the thoughts we have about our thoughts — our metacognitions. It’s proving to be a very effective form of psychotherapy, in treating everything from PTSD, to depression, to anxiety disorders.
Unlike traditional mindfulness, “detached mindfulness” doesn’t necessitate meditation or present-moment awareness. Like “defusion”, it focuses on disentangling the self from the thought.
Adrian Wells, the clinical psychologist who created MCT, described it as:
“A state of awareness of internal events, without responding to them with sustained evaluation, attempts to control or suppress them, or respond to them behaviorally… allowing the thought to occupy its own mental space without further action or interpretation in the knowledge that it is merely an event in the mind.”
Here’s how you can put it into practice:
- Whenever a thought comes up, just do one thing — observe it. Don’t try and interpret it. Don’t question it. Don’t interact with it in any way. The tendency is to ask “what does this mean?” or conceptualize it in some way. Instead, just allow it to be, in whatever form it presents itself.
- Maintaining this awareness, simply watch the thought play out. Some thoughts might disappear as soon as they’re observed, others might keep going for a while. Just hold on to the detached sense of awareness.
- Acknowledge that the thought is not part of you. It is a distinct and separate entity that has its own, independent way of behaving.
The most common problem you may run into is the thought triggering a strong emotion that disables your ability to remain detached. Emotions are powerful, and they drive “sticky” ways of thinking that tend to perpetuate the original emotion.
When this happens I follow Eckhart Tolle’s advice and shift my attention to the emotion. What does the emotion feel like? Where in your body do you feel it? Can you describe the sensations you’re experiencing? By focusing your attention on the emotion, you reduce the likelihood of engaging with the thought that triggered it as your attention is now occupied. This usually leads to the emotion quickly subsiding, as it’s no longer being “fed” by thought.
This way of observing thought and emotion doesn’t come naturally. When faced with a troubling thought we often respond with different coping strategies. You might try and reason with it in an attempt to subdue it. You may try to actively suppress it. You might even try to avoid anything in your environment that triggers the thought. This only gives the thought more power. “Detached mindfulness” insists we don’t engage with the thought in any way, even if we’re doing so to reassure ourselves.
Try instead to allow the thought to occupy its own space, regardless of how unpleasant or anxiety-provoking it may be, knowing it will soon pass.
When you separate your thoughts from your sense of self, they become almost irrelevant to your wellbeing. Because you no longer identify with them, they lose their power over you. They just come and go, like passing clouds in the sky.
But of course, there’ll still be times when you get totally swept away by thought, particularly in times of high stress. After a lifetime of identifying with your thoughts, it takes time to change your relationship with them. But consistently reminding yourself that thoughts are transient creations of the mind, and reinforcing a detached and mindful perspective will keep you grounded.
Recognizing you’ve become “fused” with thought, then moving into a state of “detached mindfulness” requires some practical skills in attention. The good news is that you can train attention like any other skill.
When you’ve completed all the steps above, you may already notice your attention is improving.
Mindfulness meditation strengthens your “selective attention” — the ability to focus on one thing and tune others out — as well as your ability to sustain a constant level of attention.
But to tame your DMN, the most valuable skill to learn is flexibility of your attention.
Getting stuck in unpleasant thought loops feels like an incurable fault of the mind, but it’s really just an inability to redirect your attention.
Metacognitive therapy uses the “Attention Training Technique” to train flexibility of attention. This 12-minute listening exercise is proving to be so effective in targeting perseverative thoughts that it’s being used as a standalone therapy in depression and anxiety. And you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Here’s a link to the exercise.
You’ll hear lots of different sounds all at once. A chaotic mix of birds tweeting, water flowing, fire crackling, wind blowing, and crickets chirping. You’re then directed to focus on only one sound, blocking out all the other noises competing for your attention. Then you’re asked to switch your attention between the different sounds at increasing speed.
Finally, you must divide your attention between all the sounds, and try to process them all at once. If you’re doing it right you should be quite mentally tired by the end of it. The aim is to load your attentional faculties so you’re able to switch attention while under pressure.
Combining this exercise with your meditation practice every so often will really change the day-to-day patterns in your thinking. Whenever you find yourself stuck in unhelpful rumination or “sticky” thoughts, you’ll be better able to shift your attention to something more worthwhile. Which leads us to our final step…
So far we’ve focused a lot on how the DMN can cause us suffering. But once tamed, it can be a powerful ally.
Armed with flexible attention and a detached, mindful awareness of your thoughts, you’ll now be better able to use the DMN productively. No longer do you need to worry about getting “stuck” in unhelpful thought patterns. Now you’re free to let it wander and discover hidden treasures of the mind.
More studies are suggesting benefits to the DMN’s continuous churn of thought. It allows us to plan out our future, and consider obstacles to goals so we’re better prepared. It offers a mental sketchpad on which we can draw anything that is within the realm of imagination, boosting our creative potential.
It enables us to find meaning in our lives when we feel out of control and nothing makes sense anymore. It can give us respite from monotonous or boring activities by allowing us to escape into the world of imagination. And it might be particularly helpful in helping us consolidate new information.
The key is to maintain awareness of what your DMN is doing. It’s less about controlling it, and more about gently steering it toward useful activities when it veers into unhelpful areas. We can only do this if we’re aware of what our mind is doing.
Through regularly practicing the above techniques, you may begin to notice an inner observer who maintains a kind, open, and curious watch of your mind’s activities.
If your mind wanders into a problem area, like worrying about your weight, your observer will recognize this as soon as it happens. This gives you an opportunity to gently “defuse” the thought from your self, and use “detached mindfulness” to watch the thought play out.
It’s then up to you what you decide to do. You may want to direct your DMN to start brainstorming ideas for your next article. Or you may decide you need a break from its incessant chatter, and instead maintain a detached, mindful state of observation.
The more you practice mindfulness meditation, the quieter your DMN may become. Seasoned practitioners have less baseline activity in the DMN, and imaging studies show the connectivity between areas of the DMN lessens. Even just two months of practice has shown to decrease the activation of the self-related parts of the DMN. This suggests an improvement in our ability to stay “defused” from thought.
But if you want to stoke the DMN and get your creative juices flowing, physical tasks with low mental effort like folding laundry, chopping vegetables, or washing up tend to get the DMN going. It helps to have an idea of what you want to think about before you start, that way you lead the DMN in the right direction before it bolts off on its own.
Consciously choosing when and what to think about in this way shows you that your thoughts aren’t as out of control as they often feel.
Some thoughts will persist in spite of practicing these techniques. These thoughts are often trying to tell you something. While we can observe the mind in a detached way, certain thoughts may benefit from interaction. Thoughts that won’t go away are often seeking resolution of some kind.
If you find your DMN just won’t let go of unhelpful thoughts, a technique from MCT that can help is “worry postponement”. Here you set aside 10–20 minutes where you agree to think about the issue, but only at this set time.
When the thought keeps popping up, tell your DMN that you’ve set aside time to think through it later. Often you’ll find it then goes away, and you may not even need to use the set time to think about it.
Be careful not to use the techniques above to suppress unpleasant thoughts — evidence suggests this may lead to a “rebound effect” where the thoughts gain more power over us. By greeting even the most unpleasant thoughts with acceptance, rather than resistance, you can’t go wrong.
If you’re really having a difficult time, with lockdown or with life in general, it’s always best to speak to a professional who can teach you these techniques and more in a safe environment.