1. an idea, plan, opinion, picture, etc., that is formed in your mind
2. reasoning power
Thinking consists of language, mental imagery and concepts. It is a means to manipulate and assimilate new information, reason and solve problems. The key brain area involved is the pre-frontal cortex; this is where executive functioning such as planning occurs.
Our thoughts can chide, berate, question, cast doubts, build hope, and strategize. We have no control over the thoughts that enter our heads. Everyone experiences perverse thoughts of one sort or another, such as driving straight at a sharp turn. Your brain is like a train depot: while you cannot control the trains that come through the depot, you control whether or not you get on board. Consider thoughts that cause undue suffering or distress and reflect on how it will look to observe the train travel through without getting on board and without judgment. Situations out of your control tend to cause unneeded frustration. Consider letting those thoughts pass through, instead getting on board situations in your control where you can determine and follow through on solutions.
1. Media and research constantly report on new tactics to improve memory and mind: “baby Einstein” with classical music for the infant and tricks for older adults to proactively resist dementia. There are two requisite components needed to maintain cognition: stimulation and novelty. It is not enough to complete the daily crossword for stimulation. Once the answers have been memorized (e.g., obi for Japanese sash and styx for river in Hades), the utility is lost. One has to continuously engage in experiences both stimulating and novel, such as travel.
Accordingly, brainstorm potential activities that tap into stimulation and novelty. First, create a list. Second, over time, engage in items on your list, inviting others when relevant to do so.
2. Interpretations can drive how situations impact us. A key premise to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that it is not the activating event that causes subsequent emotions or behavior but the cognitive interpretation of the event. For example, receiving a poor review at work has a very different impact if generalized to being fired versus seeing it as an opportunity to take in and implement work suggestions. This week, pay attention when you experience a mood change. How are you interpreting the associated events? Are these interpretations accurate? We tend to fill in missing date to fit our belief: consider filling in missing data differently. One reason that CBT spends so much time on cognitive restructuring is because we tend to engage in behavior that serves to strengthen our interpretations. For example, if you have decided you will be fired, you are much less likely to improve your performance.
3. Engage in the exercise of free writing. It helps to increase a flow in thinking by allowing for a stream of consciousness. Sometimes we experience blocks, built up with perfectionism, fear of failure, or fear of judgment. Giving yourself five, ten, even 20 minutes to write without stop, without consideration of content, gets you through those blocks. In moments where you have no ideas, you write: “I have no thoughts right now.” Out of what is written, there may or may not be nuggets to be saved. Regardless, you now have a tool to surmount hurdles related to expression of thought.
4. Emotions serve many functions including how to read our own reaction to an event, person or thing: curiosity indicating interest, sadness indicating loss, anger indicating a violation. Labeling and observing the emotion without judgment helps in sitting through the sensation. There are times that emotions, both positive and negative, can be uncomfortable. Use of mental imagery, one aspect of thought, will serve as a way to pause. When calmed, then you can review your emotions to determine next action. Thich Nhat Hahn in his book, Anger, discusses this pausing as cooking the potatoes so they aren’t served raw. Not only are visual exercises easily transportable, they help put the breaks on an overly triggered sympathetic nervous system. An effective visual exercise incorporates all the senses, thus appropriate as an end to our sense exercises. Practice now, while calm, so the exercise is easy to retrieve when needed. Close your eyes, deepen your breathing so your abdomen expands with each in-breath, and spend five minutes picturing a place that brings peace: beach, lake, mountain, home. If the beach, taste and smell the salt in the air, hear the seagulls, feel the sun-heated sand between your toes, and see the crested waves of the ocean. Once the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your state of arousal will be diminished.