Thinking is great, except when it's not! Our brains are wonderful things - our thinking brains enable us to plan, speak, connect, problem-solve, create, invent and imagine. Unfortunately our minds have a natural tendency to seek out the negative. Many of the thoughts that stick around are the ones that can lead to worry and rumination. These thoughts can seem to pop up out of nowhere.
If you've ever suffered from stress, anxiety or depression, you'll know the sort of thoughts. The ones that hang about and really get to you. Nobody's immune. Research suggests that we have between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day and around three-quarters of these are negative. You can thank your brain for that too. In evolutionary terms, this tendency to seek out threatening messages was useful for survival. Operating on a better-safe-than-sorry policy, our ancient ancestors who survived were the ones who could best negatively predict that a long curving object on the jungle floor was a snake and so stayed safe. The understanding being that positively presuming the said object was a stick would have been a risk to our survival as a species.
We're all living with the legacy of these tricky brains which are hardwired to seek out threats in our environment. Once we're suffering from anxiety or stress, and our fight or flight reflex has kicked in, our minds begin to race in an attempt to quickly evaluate threats, negative thoughts increase and we can soon get caught up in spirals of negative thinking. Fortunately, we can learn to manage the rise of negative thoughts, simply by paying attention to them with mindfulness exercises. The simplest technique is mindfulness of breath.
This is an ideal mindfulness exercise for beginners as it's portable and do-able. All you need is a few moments and your breath - which you always carry with you! Mindful breathing helps you to distance yourself from the content of negative thoughts, as, over time, you come to notice and understand that thoughts are often nothing but thoughts, and certainly they're not always facts. Learning to notice and let go of unhelpful thoughts can be key to combating anxiety and depression.
Here's how to practise mindfulness of breath. (You may like to spend anything between 5 and 15 minutes for this exercise.)
Begin by finding a place to sit, and, close your eyes. Adopt an upright posture, alert yet relaxed to enable you to pay attention. The aim isn't specifically to relax (although this is often a welcome side effect).
Settle as you are, noticing your feet upon the floor, hands in your lap and any points your body makes contact with your seat. Bring your attention to your breath now. Simply follow the rise and fall of your breathing. There's no need to try to change your breath at all. Just allow it to be as it is, letting it do its own thing, accepting things just as they are. Notice and follow the breath in your abdomen. If you like, you can place your hand there to feel this gentle movement.
Be curious about the sensations of your breath, in and out. Become aware of where else you notice the breath in your body. Perhaps you feel it in your chest, or the sensations of the breath entering your nose. Bring your attention to wherever you feel it most, and see what sensations you discover.
If at any point during this exercise, your mind does wander, you might be relieved to know, this is completely normal. Simply make a note of where your mind has wandered and bring your focus back to your breathing. It can help to note with a simple word, such as 'thinking', 'feeling', 'planning', 'judging', 'remembering', what your mind was doing and return your focus to your breath. Every time you notice your mind has wandered know that this is part of the exercise - you've managed a moment of mindfulness. Treat your mind as if it were a bouncy puppy, who needs to be reminded to come back to heel, over and over again. There's no need to get cross with it, only gentle reminders are needed to begin to train your mind to stay present, instead of running back to the past or taking a wander into the future.
Continue paying attention to your breathing for your chosen time (some people find a timer helps). When you're ready to bring this exercise to a close, begin to notice the sounds around you, and the feeling of your feet on the floor, and your body in the chair. Slowly open your eyes, and take in the sights around you. Give yourself a couple of moments to take everything in, and move into the rest of your day.