Are you the master of your mind or unsure how to control your thought process?
Let’s face it…
Many of us are slaves to our thoughts, pushed and pulled at their every whim.
Deep down we know what we want to do with our health, careers and relationships, but no sooner have we decided than our thoughts hijack the controls, introducing fear and doubt.
In this article, we’ll look at the importance of observing your mind and what you can do to control your thought.
But first, let’s think a little about the thought process…
What Are Your Thoughts?
Thoughts are patterns of electro-chemical signals transmitted along neurons in our brain.
The wiring and firing of messages in a mind-bogglingly big network makes tracking thoughts from a scientific perspective pretty darn difficult.
How specific thoughts arise from a neuronal and biological perspective, is therefore, still up for debate.
“[It’s] like asking where the forest begins. Is it with the first leaf, or the tip of the first root?”, says Charles Jennings, director of neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
It’s certainly difficult to see the forest from the trees, but let’s take a look…
Where Do Thoughts Come From?
From an external perspective, it might be easier to grasp the trigger for thought occurrence.
When light hits our retinas, for example, that information is turned into a signal, which passes along an axon to transmit the message across a synapse to the relevant neuron. The pattern of information then spreads throughout our brain.
This can then be translated into the imagery we require to navigate the world.
Internally, the thoughts that pop into our heads might arise from our learning, experiential history, events experienced and memory – all taking cues from our upbringing, beliefs and environment to influence our subconscious and conscious processes.
Embodied cognition is a field which supposes that physical experience may actually contribute to thought control in a more significant way than previously recognised.
After all, there are plenty of results from behavioural studies where thought processes have been influenced by physical factors.
Just take the example of being handed a petition, where the weight of the clipboard alone can alter our perception of the request.
Certainly, thoughts can be powerful agents of change, and to control your thought process will undoubtedly give you more mastery over your life.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
I think, therefore I am – René Descartes
Our minds are much like a social media newsfeed – one minute we have the image of a cat video playing in our head, before jumping to what pizza topping we’ll have that night.
While we have a lot of random fluff popping up in our consciousness, in order to control your thought, we need to disregard Descartes for a minute, step back and gain some perspective.
While our thoughts are clearly influenced by our unique little snowflake status, including our beliefs, our past and our current environment, they’re not really ‘us’.
To become too identified with your thought is really to become a backseat driver. Allowing this to happen is a guaranteed recipe for a life of suffering.
After all, most of our thoughts are utter rubbish, playing on our biggest fears and worries just to try and keep us safe.
Say you’re starting a new job…
Clearly, your thought process would focus on identifying potential pitfalls – perhaps how your boss might be a bad egg, or how your skills won’t be sufficient for the role.
Throughout our evolutionary history, such fears were undoubtedly helpful, but to now confuse these ghostly warnings with your real identity is both dangerous and disempowering.
After all, starting a new job isn’t quite like striking out over the savannah to wrestle a sabertooth tiger…depending on where you work.
Detaching from your thoughts allows you to see them for what they are and ultimately, use them to your advantage.
How to Control Your Thought Process
Now you know you’re not the sum of your thoughts, you have to remove yourself enough to gain some perspective. Mindful awareness is a great way to do this.
Wherever you are, just bring your attention to your breath for a moment. Now, try to keep your attention fixed there for two minutes.
Focus on the physical sensation of air moving into and out of your lungs. You can either bring your attention to your stomach, observing the gentle rhythm of breathing, to your nostrils or between your eyes.
Whenever you lose focus and start thinking, try to notice as soon as possible. It might be that your thoughts carry you away for a few minutes without you realising.
Observe what you were thinking about, categorise it and simply return your attention to your breath.
Congratulations! You’ve just performed a mini mindfulness meditation exercise.
Ideally, this can form part of a daily routine. I currently meditate for 30 minutes every day, as a simple reminder that I can distance myself from my thoughts enough to control my own narrative.
It’s only when you’ve started to observe your thoughts can you detach enough to start crafting a new story around them.
Change Your Mind
When you’ve started to observe your thoughts regularly, you’ll begin to notice that we’re our own worst enemies.
The amount of negativity our thoughts create is pretty astonishing, and although it’s a protective mechanism that has served us well, learning how to switch to a more positive mindset is an empowering technique.
A little disclaimer first: Negative thinking isn’t bad or something to be eradicated.
Negative thoughts are perfectly natural, healthy human processes that can help provide information about ourselves and the world.
If you’re walking down a dark alley, for example, and subconsciously recognise an impending threat, it makes sense to notice those thoughts and act on them accordingly.
However, in most contexts, these reactions are redundant. You can, therefore, simply observe any negative thoughts that arise before flicking the switch to a more productive perspective.
It’s a bit like changing the signals to allow a train to switch tracks – to transfer to a route that permits a more positive mindset. In this way, you’re able to control your thought process.
What You Think You Become
You see, even though our thoughts shouldn’t be mistaken for our true identity, they can be a powerful vehicle to transport us toward the type of person we want to become.
Thoughts do have consequences if left unchecked.
For example, while many of us have become increasingly disconnected from our mind-body relationship, our mental processes can affect our physiological response.
If we expect to get better after seeing the doctor, our health is more likely to improve.
Not only that, but thoughts can effect our day-to-day performance. You see, our outlook influences our subsequent behaviour and consequently our physical reality.
This really isn’t a voodoo process, but rather a shift in perspective that alters how you interact with your daily environment.
Let’s say you’re stuck in a negative thought spiral because your dastardly boss is making you unhappy at work.
By focusing on your breath, you notice the pattern of negativity bubbling up from your subconscious.
After observing the process, you decide to change tack and supplant the thoughts with empowering alternatives, like:
“My boss may not value my work, but I’m good at my job. Maybe I’ll have a look to see what else is out there.”
Whereas previously you might have wallowed in a well of self-pity, reframing the situation around more positive thoughts can be just the motivation you need to apply to new jobs.
I’m not going to lie. At first, you’re going to find this hard. From a young age, we’ve often been conditioned to identify with the negative in our environment.
Just look at how depressing the news is, and our penchant for clicking on negative headlines.
We’re so primed for spotting threats that we often don’t even notice when we’re sucked into a negative vortex of thoughts and emotions before it’s too late.
But the good news is that, with practice, we can condition ourselves to switch to a more positive mindset with greater ease.
Just like swinging a golf club enough times may make me slightly less terrible at golf, so we can form the same kind of muscle memory with our thought processes.
The more we attempt to divert our thoughts to a positive track, the stronger we make those neural pathways in the brain. Through a process called neuroplasticity, we can literally modify the hardware in our head!
To change your thought process to a more positive frame of reference allows you to capitalize on what Shawn Achor calls The Happiness Advantage.
As well as improving your mood, as the name implies, your resultant performance gains should convince you to re-evaluate your relationship with your thoughts.
So take a step back, breath and get your thinking cap on.