“Whose thoughts are those?”
A regular interaction I have with new clients involves their thoughts, especially anxious thoughts. “My boss expects too much of me. I can’t keep up!” “I’ll never be able to stop <insert bad habit here>.” “I just can’t get my act together.” “No one knows the real me.” “I’ll never get over my depression.” At some point in the interaction, I’ll ask, “Whose thoughts are those?” Clients usually respond with a look of confusion and ask, “What do you mean?”
Most of us are so used to our thoughts that we don’t recognize them as thoughts. Instead, we treat them as reality, as authoritative, as fact. But thoughts are just that: thoughts!
Our Bodies, Our Thoughts
Now, I realize that may sound strange and ethereal. Yet, it is an important starting point for working through mental health challenges, especially debilitating anxiety and depression. You see, your thoughts don’t happen in isolation. Rather, they are deeply connected with your body’s autonomic nervous system. This system constantly monitors your internal and external environment for anything potentially threatening. When a real or perceived threat is detected, the system notifies hormone-generating glands to provoke your body to action (commonly known as fight/flight/freeze): your heart pumps faster, breathing rate increases, muscles tighten, and bowels loosen. And, importantly for this article, your brain begins generating “helpful” thoughts. In microseconds, your brain searches past memories for similar events/feelings/ideas that may help with the current threat. Your brain also generates potential outcomes (mostly worst-case scenarios).
This is a tremendously helpful automatic brain/body response system! For example, it keeps you alive when someone pulls out in front of your car while you’re driving along minding your own business. But, as good as it is, it also easily goes haywire. Mental habits developed at young ages “lock-in” certain thinking responses to various circumstances. Also, past traumatic experiences alter how your brain perceives threats. When facing prolonged stressful circumstances, these automatic responses and thoughts can keep you in perpetual fight/flight/freeze and eventually wear out your body.
So what can you do?
Well, help begins with the simple mantra: “I am not my thoughts.” Once you understand this as true, you can begin the process of “disempowering” unhelpful thoughts. For example, say you’re worried about your kids and overwhelmed with thoughts like, “What if they get hurt? What if they get lost? But, what if I’m not there to help them? What if no one is there to help them?” Such anxious questions fuel your imagination and provoke memories and images of kids getting hurt, lost, and abused. You then have a concluding thought, “I can’t let them leave the house today.” If you lived in a war zone, these thoughts would be helpful! But on a normal Saturday afternoon in your neighborhood, such thoughts merely perpetuate your worry and stunt your kids’ development!
Free Yourself From Your Thoughts
Once you recognize that you are not your thoughts, you can learn to disempower them. This begins with a simple yet very effective practice: add the phrase, “I am having the thought that…” to the beginning of the distressing thought. From the previous example, this would sound like, “I am having the thought that my kids will get hurt. I am having the thought that no one will be there to help them.” The more you practice this, the easier it is to generate alternative thoughts. You’ll then feel increasingly free to act in situations according to your values rather than merely reacting to your anxious thoughts.
Consider Online Therapy in Oregon for Christian Counseling
Our Clackamas and Hillsboro-based counselors are excited to work with you, wherever you are in Oregon. Your relationships can thrive again. We can help you get back on track in a way that aligns with your faith and values. When you are ready to start online Christian counseling in Oregon, follow these simple steps:
- Learn about our therapy team in Hillsboro and our caring counselors in Clackamas
- Schedule an appointment with your preferred therapist, or contact us with questions
- Feel more connected to the important people in your life
Other Mental Health Services at Life Discovery Counseling in Oregon
If you are in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, or Hillsboro, we can help you in person at one of our comfortable therapy clinics. Christian counseling is the cornerstone of our approach to therapy. Not only do we see adults, but children in counseling too. We also work with depression treatment, anxiety therapy, trauma therapy and PTSD treatment, relationship issues, marriage problems, and postpartum counseling. No matter where you are in the state, we can provide the support you need with online therapy in Oregon. Once you’re ready to start, we’re ready to meet you. Let’s connect!