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0012 - Mastermind your stress - The power of the thoughts

In my two previous blogs, I talked about how stress works and how to relax. But there is a lot more that we can do to control our stress and it all has to do with the mind. Meditation, mindfulness, visualisation, positive thinking or gratitude, all these techniques have similar objectives: stop the auto-pilot of rumination to regain conscious control of our thoughts and turn off the instinctive stress response.


Do you know why these techniques work? Because, from a stress response perspective, our brain and body cannot tell the difference between a situation that is real or just imagined. When we become aware of a negative thought, which is our interpretation - often subconscious - of a given situation, we can get back in control, stop the automatic fight-or-flight response and lower our stress levels.


How subconscious thoughts work


When we experience a stressful stimulus, we first feel a negative emotion. Then our brain interprets the emotion and generate thoughts, consciously or subconsciously. Emotions first, thoughts second. How we feel influences how we think, how we think feeds back into how we feel, and the loop continues.


Our thoughts are our reality, good or bad and whether they relate to the past, the present or the future. When we feel stressed, the first step is to identify our stressful thoughts, to then change the way we think, which will in turn change the way we feel.

Many researchers have tried to estimate the percentage of our behaviours that are driven by our conscious mind. Opinions vary but they all agree that our conscious mind only controls somewhere between 5 and 15% of our behaviours. This is not much! The rest is subconscious. Other studies show that our mind is wandering more than half of the time. Well, the good news is that it leaves us a lot of room for improvement!


Researchers have also shown that our brain is skewed towards negative thinking. This is an instinctive reaction to remember negative experiences and hopefully avoid them, should the same situation arise again. Our brain naturally focuses on and remembers many more negative events than positive. Have you ever noticed that, if you receive 10 positive comments and just 1 negative, your brain will just pay attention to that 1 negative? Have you ever felt really stressed or annoyed by that 1 negative feedback, although all the others were positive? The emotional and stress response is definitely not based on facts. We need to be mindful of this process to consciously refocus on the positive and turn off our stress response. This cognitive distortion is called polarising or filtering. But it is not the only one...


Other stress-inducing cognitive distortions include over-generalising (I am always... I am never... it is either black or white, all or nothing...), catastrophising (imagining the worst-case scenario or making a huge issue of something small), jumping to conclusion (on what somebody else is thinking, or what is going to happen). These distortions also fuel stressful thoughts or personal beliefs without facts or evidence.


Rumination and brooding are two other unproductive and stressful habits. Replaying an unpleasant situation or thought in our head is rarely solving the problem but is very good at filling our stress bucket. When we are emotionally stressed, it can take hours for our body to recover and return to balance. That means rumination can do a lot of damage and will require a lot of efforts, relaxation techniques and mindfulness to reverse its effects on our stress levels.


Our negative thoughts have a great power on our lives. They can dictate how we feel and how we act. But once we become aware of them, we can realise that they are not the reality and that they don’t have a power of their own.


Meditation and mindfulness


There are many different ways to practice meditation or mindfulness to de-stress and become more resilient. The objective is to become aware of our current emotions, thoughts and sensations, without judging or analysing them, in order to achieve peace of mind, let the bad ones go and turn off the instinctive fight-or-flight response.


There are so many studies showing that regular meditation and mindfulness have a positive effect on our well-being that it would be a waste not to try them. They have been shown to reduce stress, cortisol and the activity of our amygdala (rumination and fight-or-flight) and even to slow down cellular aging. They increase our brain-derived neurotrophic factors (a.k.a. BDNF, that protect our neurons or grow new ones) and the density of the grey matter in our brain (leading to more effective brain processing). They also help regulate our emotions, help us learn from past experiences and generally make us happier. Paired with deep breathing, they change our physiology (reduced heart rate, blood pressure...) and allow us to shift to the rest-and-digest parasympathetic mode.


When we worry about something, we are trying to resolve the issue through our thoughts. It give us the illusion of control but typically makes us feel worse and doesn't solve the issue. Instead, we when become aware of our negative thoughts, we can acknowledge them, without nourishing nor rehashing them. This can defuse their emotional power. It becomes easier to see how our anxiety may be disproportionate to the reality of the situation. It can also allow us to let go of these toxic thoughts or to reframe them in a more rational context, to then focus on action, depending on what is within our control.


It is important to understand that we are not our thoughts. Instead of saying "I am stressed / angry / anxious / sick / not good enough / unlucky / overwhelmed / tired...", it is better to say "I feel stressed / angry / anxious...", to avoid identifying to and be consumed by the emotion.

I have read that we have somewhere between 12,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day, that 80% are negative and 95% are the same repetitive thoughts as the day before. I am not sure how reliable these numbers are, but even with just 10,000 negative thoughts a day, you can imagine how much difference you can make on your stress levels, your mood and well-being by becoming aware of them and letting them go.


So, when you wake up in the morning, when you commute to work or have your lunch break, take a few minutes to check for toxic thoughts, how they make you feel and how they impact your body. Acknowledge them. Be mindful that they are not the truth, just your interpretation of the reality. This is the first step to stop the cycle of compulsive negative thoughts that are distracting, useless and draining, to clear them and free your mind from stress.


Quick practice guide


This is just an example of a quick and easy way to practice mindfulness, wherever you are and have 5 to 10 minutes to spare.

  1. Find a quiet place and relax into a comfortable position, or go for a stroll. Put some music on, use a phone App such as Headspace or Calm or diffuse essential oils, if it helps.

  2. Focus your attention on something: feel your breathe entering your nose and expanding your lungs, listen to the wind in the trees and to the birds singing, feel the grass under your feet or the sun on your skin, smell the aromas around you... Slow down your breath. Scan for tensions in your body and allow them to disappear. When you focus on your sensations, you cannot maintain stressful thoughts at the same time, as your brain cannot multitask.

  3. Once relaxed, start paying attention to your thoughts or feelings. They will start coming randomly. Observe the first thought, acknowledge it without judging or analysing it and let it go. Then let a second thought come to mind and repeat the process.

  4. Take your time. Continue to observe the thoughts or feelings that arise in your mind. Do not to get involved, do not comment. Just be mindful, feel the tensions in your body and then let go of the thoughts and of the tensions. Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care but that you decide not to waste energy on things you cannot control.

  5. Start making an habit out of it by practicing at the same time every day. Start with a few minutes and extend the practice if you feel like it. When you are not busy, wherever you are, start observing how you are feeling and what you are thinking about. You might be in the car, on the bus, walking in the street or getting ready for bed. Are you thinking about work deadlines and that you feel worn out? Are you stuck in traffic, feeling annoyed, thinking you are going to be late? Or are you rehashing the argument you had with your teenager or husband/wife and start feeling the migraine coming? Or maybe you are feeling good today, it is beautiful outside, you are thinking about the great time you had with your friends yesterday, you feel proud that you have successfully completed this big project you had, everything just seems to work in your favour: you are in the flow!

  6. Keep practicing. You will start noticing a pattern: which thoughts and feelings keep coming back, which ones are stressful and which ones help you relax. With time, it will become easier to let go of the negative thoughts without rehashing them, consciously or not.


Visualisation and positive thinking


Once you have identified your toxic thoughts, you can go one step further with visualisation, positive thinking or other similar techniques such as practicing gratitude, the "fake it till you make it" method, the Coue method or by just relying on the placebo effect. They are all be proven to be beneficial to reduce stress and improve well-being.


Adopt a proud and tall, confident, calm posture, with relaxed neck and shoulders and smile: this can trick your mind and body that you are indeed confident, calm and feeling good. Or just visualise yourself confident and relaxed in the stressful situation that is bothering you. Practice deep breathing whilst visualising for the best possible outcome. Or you can also think about what makes you happy, what feels good or what you are grateful for: blue sky and sunshine, a delicious lunch, a loving family, a nice house, good time with friends...


Again, as the mind and body can react in the same way whether a situation is real or just imagined, it helps reduce stress and achieve the desired outcome.


I hope this blog will convince you to spare a few minutes in your day to take inventory of your thoughts and feelings. See what thoughts make you feel good and don't waste energy on the others. Regain control. Don't let your thoughts decide for you and dictate how you feel. Stop regurgitating negative thoughts. Instead, create room for positivity to feel happier. You can mastermind your stress!


As usual, you can find all the references to studies and research here, and my credentials here.


This article is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, heal or prevent any disease or medical condition. See full disclaimer here.


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