How to Manage Your Thoughts

by Dr. Monica Blied

What is Thought Management? 

Stress management often starts with our thoughts. Although it can feel like your thoughts are out of your control, you can learn to consciously and mindfully guide them. Thought management is an effective skill that can help you feel more relaxed and in control over your emotions. To understand why thought management can help you, it is important to understand the cognitive triad. The cognitive triad in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) explains the relationship between our feelings, thoughts, and actions.  The ways you think about yourself and the words you tell yourself influence how you feel and how you behave. In other words, you have the ability to influence your emotions and behaviors by managing your thoughts. 

Our thoughts can easily lead us to a downward spiral. Imagine you wake up one morning in pain. You may have these thoughts: I’m always going to be in pain. This is not fair. Why me? These thoughts will influence your mood. You will start your day feeling hopeless and depressed. These emotions will likely lead you to stay in bed and become tearful. You may not be motivated to have a healthy meal and choose instead to have an unhealthy meal. Moreover, eating unhealthy foods will lead your body to feel worse. 

What if instead, that morning you chose to shift your thoughts? You may have stopped yourself and thought: Okay, I’m in pain. This sucks. This is really hard. But, I’ve made it through hard times before and I’ll make it through hard times again. Maybe you decide to call a friend and get your thoughts off your mind or distract yourself for a few moments in some other way. You may still feel a touch of depression, but the intensity of that emotion may have shifted from despair to sadness to irritation. Since your sadness is not as intense, you are likely to choose healthier behaviors like getting out of bed and taking a shower.

Challenge Your Negative Thoughts 

Here I will list some practical strategies for addressing negative thoughts that you can apply to your life today.

Step Outside Yourself

What are some ways to challenge automatic negative thoughts? One way you can challenge your negative thoughts is to imagine how you would advise a loved one who was having the same thoughts. Often we are our own harshest critics and our own worst enemy. We would never speak to someone we love the way we speak to ourselves. Try to step outside of yourself. Doing this exercise will lead you to much more encouraging and helpful thoughts. 

Minimize Catastrophizing: “What if” to “Even if” Thinking  

One way our negative thoughts lead us to feel anxious and overwhelmed is because we spend so much time thinking about what can go wrong. You can challenge these thoughts by thinking of ways you would deal with the worst-case scenario. In other words, you can challenge your “what if” thoughts with “even if” thoughts. For example, the thought, “What if my car is not fixed in time?” can be challenged with, “Even if my car is not fixed in time, I can have my uncle drop me off at work.” Think about the resources you have. Who would you call to help you? What techniques or tools do you have to help alleviate the situation? The more consistent you are with challenging your negative thoughts, the more likely “even if” thinking will become a natural and effortless way you think throughout your day. 

The Best Possible Outcome

We rarely allow ourselves to think about the best possible outcome. Ideal outcomes are possible. Allow yourself to imagine things going well.  

The Three R’s: Redirect, Reframe and Recognize

The Three R’s is a three-part strategy I coined to help address negative thinking: 1. Redirect, 2. Reframe, and, 3. Recognize and Accept.

1. Redirect

The first step is to redirect your focus. Sometimes you simply need to distract yourself. You can do activities that bring you joy such as watching a comedy movie, playing a puzzle, or even adult coloring. The key is to put your mind somewhere else. This will help you avoid spiraling and ruminating over negative thoughts. 

2. Reframe 

The second step, reframe, refers to shifting your perspective. What are some different ways of looking at this situation? What else may be true? Again, you want to try to challenge those “what if” thoughts with “even if” thinking. 

3. Recognize and Accept 

Lastly, try to recognize and accept unpleasant thoughts. Sometimes because of the levels of different neurotransmitters in your brain, you will have a lot of anxiety and depression.  However, that doesn’t mean that anxiety and depression have to be the main focus. Treat those depressed and anxious thoughts as the ticker tape that scrolls at the bottom of the screen during a news broadcast; the ticker tape is there and you can still see and read it, however, your main focus should be what is in your control. You choose what you focus on. For instance, you can choose to focus on things that bring you joy, such as going for a walk, reading a book, or spending time with loved ones.

The Bottom Line 

Our thoughts are powerful. They influence the way we feel and what actions we choose to take. So when it comes to stress management, think about the ways you can manage your thoughts. Try to apply some thought management techniques in your daily routine, and reflect on how it impacts your day. Thought management is a skill and will become easier the more it is practiced. 

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