A significant amount of anxiety would be reduced and would never manifest to begin with if we were taught about our thoughts early in life. Not only would we understand that we all have strange, dark, and wild thoughts, but we would understand that thoughts come in categories, and when we understand these categories, we’re able to label what has entered our minds and attend to what’s needed. Discernment, which is a skill of the mind, is key, for when we can name which type of thought is arising, we can then decide how to respond.

There are four main types of thoughts:

1. Meaningless Thoughts

There are usually random thoughts that we have throughout the day: thoughts about the cat we met on our walk, thoughts about the weather, thoughts about something funny that happened at work. There are daydreaming thoughts where we’re lost in another time or another world. There are planning thoughts where we’re thinking about what we’re going to eat, buy, or do later in the day.

We know that most of these thoughts are harmless, but when one of the “weird” or “dark” ones enter, it’s easier to grab hold.

2. Protective/Intrusive Thoughts:

These are the textbook intrusive thoughts that I talk about frequently in my work:

  • What if I don’t love my partner? (relationship anxiety)
  • What if I’m gay/straight? (sexual orientation anxiety)
  • What if I said something “stupid” to a friend? (social anxiety)
  • What if my thoughts or feelings aren’t “right” in some way? (just right OCD theme)
  • What if I have cancer? (health anxiety)
  • What if the world ends? (eco-anxiety)

Protective thoughts can easily snowball into intrusive thoughts if you don’t know how to work with them. The faster you can name them as “protection” and say, “Just because I have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true” then drop down into the feeling embedded inside, the less they’ll snowball into intrusive. 

3. Beliefs/Stories

There’s a type of thought that exists below conscious mind and lives in the stratum of psyche called the unconscious or subconscious. These are thoughts that we don’t necessarily think about on a daily basis but they inform how we feel about ourselves on a basic level. If you hold a belief that you’re a good person and that you deserve love, for example, you will feel worthy of love on a deep level and you likely won’t fall into the trenches of relationship anxiety.

If, on the other hand, you believe that you’re not worthy or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, you will push others away in an attempt to keep your heart safe. Again, these deep-seated beliefs don’t always appear consciously. In fact, you may consciously believe that you’re worthy but in the underground sub-strata layer you carry an opposing belief. 

I know from parenting my two boys how little it takes to form a belief that you’re not enough in some way. My husband and I have done everything we can do to nurture a positive self-worth in both of them, and yet there have been situations beyond our control that have led to them feeling less than positive about themselves in certain situations.

It seems to be part of the fabric of living a human life to come up against situations that challenge our intrinsic self-worth. I know how little it takes to feel slighted, hurt, or made to feel inadequate, even if it’s unintentional. 

From what I understand, we’re torn down so that we can be built up stronger than before (*see Anita’s comment below for a different perspective on this statement). So, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, let’s go beyond blaming parents or siblings or teachers and trust that we were hurt in exactly the ways we needed to be hurt in order to strengthen and grow in exactly the ways we need to strengthen and grow.

4. Creative, Innovative and Reflective Thoughts

These are obviously the most fun types of thoughts! I’m not sure that they’re thoughts, exactly, as creative thoughts often stem from a place that’s deeper than mind, but since they feel like thoughts I’ll place them on this list

Creative thoughts emerge when we’re in a peaceful frame of mind, dropped down into the place where the contents of the unconscious rise up to meet conscious mind. Creative thoughts can arise in the form of a poem, an image, an idea for what to make for dinner, an insight for how to plan out the garden next year, or a million other permutations (actually, more than a million, for the creative mind is infinite). 

When we’ve calmed the anxious mind enough, creativity emerges. I often say that anxiety and creativity are two pathways that stem from the same core, meaning that the core is sensitivity and when the sensitive self is honored it can be channeled into more creativity and less anxiety.

This isn’t about creating more products. It’s not about creating anything out there. Rather, it’s about opening to the wellsprings of your soul, and inviting its expression. This may be in the way you make your bed or the song you sing to your child at night. It may look like more presence when you eat or more patience in the way you love. It’s much less about producing and much more about being. From the being, the doing may arise, but it doesn’t necessarily look like the way we’re conditioned to think it should look. 

In a centered state, we also invite reflective thoughts. “I need to have a good think,” someone might say when they’re in a quandary. This isn’t the kind of “think” that centers on mind-spinning and problem-solving. Rather, it’s more of a creative think that leads to new ideas or pathways not previously seen. 

To recap:

When we have an inner witness we can discern, label and sort the thoughts that enter our minds. Some are junk mail. These include the weird and dark thoughts that every human has. Some are messengers and metaphors that we might want to explore. 

The most important piece is to recognize that we have the power to choose. We choose which thoughts we want to explore. We choose which thoughts we want to brush away. And we choose whether or not we ruminate. Once we’re on the ruminating hamster wheel, we also choose when we want to step off. 

I’m not saying this is an easy choice. Stepping off means letting go of the crutch that is protecting us from the more vulnerable emotional states that live underneath: our fundamental groundlessness (Pema Chodron), our grief, our loneliness. But when we recognize the power of choice, we regain healthy control and can then decide what’s next. 

Final note: To learn more about how to stop ruminating, I recommend reading through Dr. Michael Greenberg’s articles and also listen to his interview on The OCD Stories, which you can find here. 

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