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You Are Not Your Thoughts

One thing that has made itself abundantly clear over the past two years is the need for robust mental health and emotional intelligence. There are multiple times a week that I read a news article or watch a video, and I have an overwhelming sense of dread. I think I have an above-average handle on my emotions and thoughts, but we all have our low days. Mental health is not a one-and-done type of exercise. You have to practice every day to build up your muscle memory of what it means to have a healthy mental outlook.

Surprisingly enough, my mental health journey started when I was in Afghanistan. I'm sure you can imagine being in a hostile war zone might drive someone to seek out some assistance with their mental health.

After an awful day, I went to our mental health clinic and asked to speak with someone. But unfortunately, I knew the stigma in my unit around seeking help — it was seen as a weakness for whatever dumb reason. Regrettably, this type of thinking is an epidemic in the military. I hope it's changed since I left (almost six years ago), but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I started working with a great team of professional counselors and psychologists. The mental health team determined that I should start taking medication and go through talk therapy. I didn't think the talk therapy would work because it's just talking, right? Wrong, it's so much more than that. It's a way of breaking down how you think about things and adjusting how you respond to your thoughts.

I like to describe the train of thought as a kind of ticker tape running in the background of a news channel. It's constantly churning out new information, even if you aren't necessarily paying attention. The problem comes when you start paying attention and become fixated on those thoughts without knowing how to resolve the negative ones.

One thing I like to do is play a game I call Thought Tinder. If you're unfamiliar with Tinder, it's a dating application where pictures of potential suitors are shown to you, and you have to swipe right on the screen if you want to match with them and left if you don't. In Thought Tinder, we do a similar thing. I've found this especially useful at night when my thoughts sometimes take over and run on an endless loop. In this method of thought categorization, you allow your thoughts to come in as they please without trying to fight them. If the thought is negative, you recognize that you are thinking the thought and swipe left. If it's a good or pleasant thought, you swipe right. In doing this, you're allowing your mind to blow off the steam it needs to, but you aren't letting the thoughts consume you. You are not your thoughts.

A similar way to think about this technique is by likening it to laundry. I don't remember who I learned this from, but the basics of the laundry technique are to separate your thoughts into lights and darks. The lights can be your positive thoughts, and the darks can be the negative ones. If you don't actively separate your thoughts, the darks could accidentally get mixed in with the lights, and just like in laundry, this could be unfortunate.

Another method of dealing with your thoughts is to give them a name. For example, let's say that you feel anxious whenever you think about a troubling time in your life. Could you give it a name? Let's call that specific emotion connected to that memory Robin. When that feeling comes up, you can say to yourself, "Thanks, Robin, I understand you want me to think about you, but I'm a little bit busy right now." This is another way of recognizing the thought but not dominating your emotions. Your thoughts are valid, even if they are sometimes scary or uncontrollable. The one thing that won't work is trying to avoid the thought.

Let's do a quick little exercise—I'd like you to picture a yellow school bus. Maybe you can see the stop sign extended or the flashing lights. Now, for the next thirty seconds, try not to think about that bus at all.

If you're anything like me, you spent the majority of the thirty seconds reminding yourself not to think about the yellow bus. What was the result? You most likely thought about the bus for the entire exercise. If you didn't, wonderful! This exercise shows that when you actively try to avoid thinking specific thoughts, you spend more time reminding yourself not to think about them. Let the thoughts flow, and give yourself the time to appreciate the complexity of all your emotions.

One of my favorite ways to deal with negative thoughts is to schedule a time to think about them. At first, this technique might seem a little funny, but it truly works. For example, sometimes I'm working on a project or doing some writing, and a negative thought creeps into my head — "No one is ever going to read this because you're not a good writer." What I like to do in this situation is say to myself, "I don't have time to deal with you [the thought] right now, but I have some time around 2 pm. Let's dive into that thought around that time." This validates the thought, allows you to set up a time to deal with it, and pushes that thought to a point in the future. This is not the same thing as avoidance because you validate your thought being expressed. Usually, when 2 pm rolls around, I am no longer worried about that thought. So, next time you find yourself bogged down with negative thoughts, give it a try.

I'm not an expert, and none of this is medical advice, but I've done my fair share of therapy sessions in my time. Looking at yourself and your emotions introspectively is not always a fun experience. It can be painful and sometimes incredibly depressing, but you have to stop gaslighting yourself to get better. So instead, try some of these techniques and maybe share some of your own in the comments. Talking and getting those emotions out in the open is one of the best ways to start your journey to healthy mental resilience.

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