There is a saying in Sub-Saharan Africa that describes depression as “the habit of thinking too much.”
While thinking a lot does not necessarily lead to depression, it can take away our peace.
An innocent thought drips into the mind like a raindrop, creating waves of unpleasant thoughts. Next thing we know, it turns into a river of negative stories or “what if” scenarios.
Let’s be honest: none of that serves us. We could also call it “unproductive worry.”
My latest worries circle around the new vaccine for COVID-19, its unknown long-term effects, the consequences it might have for everyone, and what it means for a traveler like me. I also worry about the well-being of my parents, especially my mother.
Does that topic trigger any worries for you? Hold on just yet and don’t fall into the temptation of “thinking too much.”
Right now, I am looking for an apartment and a job, as I decided to stay in Mexico and not go back to Germany, where I am originally from. This brings along some wonderfully terrifying worries of “what if I run out of money?” and so on.
I realize that my fears are privileged—there are people in my Mexican neighborhood who live in houses without roofs. But privileged or not, my worries are there, and wherever we are in life, our worries are real and valid no matter how much they differ.
Here is a relatable, unproductive worry for many: “Why did she/he not reply to my text?” This is a classic and maybe a complete waste of energy. So take a moment today to become aware of your worries.
Then take a minute to remember what you worried about three days ago. Often, we can’t even remember, can we? What’s the point of worry on Monday if we cannot remember it on Thursday? Let’s be compassionate toward ourselves and all the energy we pour into open space.
We have great imaginations. Why do we use them against us instead of creating supportive, optimistic stories in our minds?
There are plenty of meditation techniques and relaxation practices to help us notice our thoughts.
Here are some of my favorite practices to let go of worry:
1. When they tell us to not think of a pink flamingo, we will think of a pink flamingo. If we try to not worry, our resistance will make our worries bigger.
We need to accept that we worry. It saves us energy if we stop resisting and start accepting instead. Let the worry pop up like a beach ball on the surface of the ocean so we can take a closer look and decide what to do with it.
2. Imagine our mind is a radio station—we can tune into the channel of our choice. Several spiritual leaders use this metaphor of the radio or TV station, such as Ram Dass and Abraham Hicks. If the radio station we are currently tuned into plays a song we don’t like, we can choose another station. We tune our radio the way we please until we find a song that feels good.
We can do the same with our thoughts by noticing which thought is not serving us and then exchanging it for a more useful or nurturing one. In other words, we need to turn off the bullsh*t.
3. We are not our thoughts. There is a separate awareness outside the thinking mind—some call it the higher self. The more we sit in stillness to recognize our thoughts, the better we get at stepping out of our thinking minds. We learn to observe our thoughts, hence liberating ourselves from them.
Eckhart Tolle describes a practice that guides our attention into the palms of our hands. As soon as we move our focus into our bodies (or in this case, into our hands), we take a step away from being completely absorbed by our thoughts.
Another option is to focus on our breath, follow each inhale and exhale, and count them if it helps us concentrate. We can do this anywhere.
4. We need to shift our attention to our hearts, away from the brain. Deepak Chopra includes this in some of his meditations. In the practice, one shifts the focus to the heartbeat. We can place our hand on our heart if we like, then we inquire how we feel. Any feeling that comes up, we allow ourselves to feel it without judging or labeling the emotion.
Taking the judgment away allows us to observe how we feel instead of thinking about it. It takes away the layer of unkind self-assessment.
5. It is helpful to imagine that our mind is a stage, our thoughts are the performers, and we can choose to pay attention to the play, to applaud if we like the actors (aka our thoughts), or leave the theatre altogether to attend another show (aka choose another thought).
6. Write it out. Grab a journal or a piece of paper and start with, “How do I feel today?” Write down the answer without judgment. Then ask, “What can I do to energize myself?” We might come up with a simple answer to self-care.
7. Visualize how we want to feel. Take a moment to dream about how we would feel without our worries, then take one step toward that. A single step a day is enough. For example, making ourselves a cup of tea to relax, writing that email, or reading a page of that book we’ve been wanting to read.
8. Let go of the need to control our thoughts. That might sound contradictory to the other points I made, but hear me out. The exercises are there to create awareness and a distance between us and our thoughts, so we can let them go.
Awareness is the opposite of controlling the outcome, the thought, or feeling. It is a gentle observation of what is happening, then taking a step back to decide if it serves us or not.
Remember, we always have a choice.