The thoughts and stories we play in our heads are extremely powerful in that they are directly connected to our emotions and behaviours. Allow me to give an example of just how powerful thoughts can be. Last year, my kids and I boarded the third and last flight of our annual trip to Florida to visit my parents. I had flown us on points which resulted in three connections to get to our destination. This last flight was packed to the max, I had never seen anything like it. There was barely enough room to store all the carry-ons. I observed the attendants having difficulty closing the overhead bins, impatiently slamming them repeatedly until they stayed closed. Straps were hanging out of most of them, I looked around and did not see a single empty seat. I was suddenly hit with an intense wave of anxiety, which quickly evolved into sheer panic. This was the first time I felt this on a plane. I experienced a detailed and vivid vision of the plane getting in trouble in the air, and the overhead bins all opening and causing chaos, then the plane going down in flames. Every scene of every plane crash I had ever seen in a movie or show suddenly played over and over in my head. I was feeling a deep dread that this plane was going to go down. I was convinced. I then noticed a profound urge to warn all the passengers- to run up and down the aisles and yell at everyone to get off. I was absolutely convinced in that moment, that we were all going to die. My heart was racing, I was having difficulty breathing, and then I looked at my kids and thought “I can’t lose control like this, they’ll never get on a plane again!”. I started using grounding strategies to get out of my head and back to the moment, I knew it was the only way to get out of the spiraling and all-encompassing thoughts that had invaded my mind. Eventually, I felt somewhat calm. I noticed a particularly interesting morbid thought soothe me: “If we do all die, at least I die with my children, so they won’t be orphaned, and I won’t ever have to mourn their loss”. Here’s the thing: I am still alive, I was completely wrong. The thoughts, the visions, they were all false. They were not based on any kind of fact or truth; yet I was convinced that I was having a premonition, that I could suddenly predict the future. I believed deeply in the absolute truth of my thoughts and this is what brought on the anxiety and panic that almost drove me to react impulsively.
I frequently hear about these same kinds of exaggerated and catastrophic thoughts from clients. Some experience seemingly never ending, dark and hard thoughts about the future, or of what others think of them. They share their belief in these thoughts, and that they are serious cause for concern. Some report they are constantly assessing all possible outcomes to various choices. Some report they worry about whether they are on the right path and are convinced if they can’t be absolutely sure, then they cannot be at ease. Being human is a precarious thing. We have no manual to tell us what to do, we don’t know what our future will look like and sometimes, what our purpose is. This is extremely anxiety producing for all of us. The thing is, thoughts are not facts nor are they often even based on truths. Yet these thoughts are directly contributing to anxiety, stress, feelings of unease and fear. The predictions most people make are catastrophic in nature. The thoughts are often simply taken as fact, not challenged in any way.
One of my favorite scenes from Winnie the Pooh is when Piglet and Pooh are taking shelter under a big tree from a severe storm. Piglet is very scared, and nervously asks: “What if the tree falls on us?”, to which Pooh responds with “What if it doesn’t?”. Piglet pondered on this for a few minutes and declared that he was quite comforted by that thought.
The way to ease our discomfort and fear of the unknown, is to first notice that we have strayed into our mind: and that our mind has created a narrative based on fears that we are taking as fact. What if, instead of taking every thought as an absolute fact, we look at it, and notice it for what it is: simply a thought. What if you were able to learn to accept that you will likely never have all the answers to your questions, and that is OK. Being able to balance radical acceptance and change is the pathway to emotional and cognitive flexibility. Emotional and cognitive flexibility are the pathway to resilience and self-efficacy.
Mindfulness has been proven again and again to have tremendous benefits in easing anxiety and depression. The power of mindfulness is that it invites us to be in the moment. To notice when we have lost ourselves in a spiraling mess of difficult thoughts, and gently redirect ourselves back to the moment. Had I not been practicing mindfulness already, I honestly believe that I would have given in to my deep and tribal urge to get everyone off that plane. Mindfulness allowed me to notice that I was giving way too much power to these thoughts. This awareness allowed me to breathe, which in turn, brought me back to the here and now, and I was able to enjoy a much-needed break from winter with my kids. Mindfulness will not change any situation. However, the practice of mindfulness invites us to cultivate tools to live life as it is, not as we wish it to be. It allows us to notice thoughts for what they are and minimize the power they have over us. Mindfulness gives us time, and time gives us the ability to choose how we will respond in any given situation, rather than simply react automatically, blindly or impulsively. I invite you to try it, and see what it can do for you.