Stepping Back From Difficult Thoughts

Letting go of unhelpful thoughts

Lesson 1. Anchoring Our Attention Minds and Lesson 2. Body Awareness helped us practice using our bodies to focus our attention on the moment, with curiosity and non-reactivity.

Lesson 3 will help us to gain perspective on thoughts and emotions that can hijack our attention and pull us away from the present.

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a loop of negative thinking, replaying past events or worrying about the future? How is it that certain thoughts get caught on repeat, while others are easy to release? Part of the “stickiness” of thoughts has to do with how we view them. 

When we identify with our thoughts, and believe they are accurate representations of ourselves and the world around us, they can hold a lot of power over us. For instance, when a self-critical thought arises, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of self-judgement without pausing to wonder, “Is this actually true?”

Mindfulness can help us better recognize when our thoughts are unhelpful or untrue. Rather than getting into the boxing ring with our thoughts, we can choose to disengage from the fight altogether. 

Developing this ability to step back from thoughts (more formally known as metacognitive awareness) is crucial for managing our mental health.

This skill is one of the main components of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and can be honed through mindfulness practices.[1] People who participate in mindfulness training have been found to experience a significant decrease in rumination.[2]

In our society, men often internalize societal expectations to be strong, stoic, and self-reliant, which can lead to increased self-criticism. Through mindfulness practice, we can learn to recognize these judgemental thoughts rather than taking them as truths about ourselves. 

THOUGHTS AS MENTAL PHENOMENA

To gain distance from our thoughts, we want to start thinking about them as passing mental events, bringing our attention to them without getting caught up in their content – essentially thinking about each one as ‘just a thought’. 

Our brains are constantly churning out thoughts, but they aren’t always true. Some might stem from our fears, others might be overly simplistic, and then there are those overly optimistic and “out-there” thoughts. Try to think of your thoughts like an endless brainstorming session, just because a thought comes to our attention doesn’t mean we need to constantly focus on it. 

What we really want to do is sit back and observe our thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go on their way. By cultivating this kind of mindset we can add a bit of a space between ourselves and our thoughts. Research shows that mindfulness practices help to address depression, in part, by reducing how much we identify with our negative thoughts.[2]

Increased awareness and understanding of thought processes can also help us recognize and gain distance from common negative thinking patterns.

CULTIVATING A MINDFUL PERSPECTIVE

Disengaging from the content of our thoughts isn’t easy, particularly when they carry a strong emotional charge. We can support ourselves using the mindful attitudes that we’ve started to learn alongside our mindfulness skills.

This includes cultivating our: 

  • Curiosity
  • Patience
  • Acceptance
  • Kindness
  • Compassion

While these attitudes can take time to cultivate, compassion toward ourselves is sometimes particularly challenging for men. As guys, we often have the habit of being hard on ourselves, or believe that self-care is incompatible with being a man – stoic, tough, resilient. In fact, self-care actually helps us feel stronger and even more resilient.

It can be helpful to recognize the components of compassion so that we know what we’re working toward. These include:

  • The will to lessen suffering – through our presence and actions.
  • A willingness to be with the difficulty of the present moment, allowing it to be here. Compassion does not require the difficulty to go away. Like a supportive friend, compassion allows us to sit with difficulty, without trying to avoid or run away from it.

We can apply mindful attitudes, such as compassion, to working with thoughts, and any other difficulties we encounter in our practice and everyday life.

When we encounter these difficulties, we can:

  1. Acknowledge that “this is hard” 
    • Rather than minimizing or telling ourselves we shouldn’t be struggling, accept that this is a moment of challenge or difficulty. And that’s okay.
  2. Recognize that you’re not alone
    • All men encounter difficulty – it’s part of the human condition. Others have gone through challenges similar to this one.
  3. Offer yourself a gesture of support 
    • Take a break to make yourself a cup of tea or coffee or grab a glass of water. Tell yourself “This feeling won’t last, and I can make it through it,” or take a few deep breaths to regather yourself.

Adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion program by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer (Neff and Germer, 2018).


References

  1. Segal ZV, Williams JMG, Teasdale JD. (2013). Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Kiken LG, Shook NJ. (2014). Does mindfulness attenuate thoughts emphasizing negativity, but not positivity? J Res Pers. 53:22-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.08.002. PMID: 25284906; PMCID: PMC4178287.

THIS IS MEN'S HEALTH WEEK | JUNE 10-16TH, 2024

Men's Health Week takes place annually in mid-June, during the week preceding Father’s Day. The week is not just a campaign, but a call to action for men to take better care of their health and for communities to support men in this endeavour.

Men's Health Week 2024