Photography by  Bri Hammond  of   Melinda Harper

Can we learn to flip the thoughts that are no longer serving us?

Words by Madeleine Dore

Art by Amelia Goss

We spend a lot of time thinking negatively. Nearly half our waking hours are spent thinking about something other than what we are doing – we ruminate on past disappointments, worry about the future, or recall embarrassing moments over and over.

While it would be unrealistic to eliminate our negative thoughts altogether – human brain is primed for distraction and a negative lens helps us to be alert to danger and seek safety –psychologists have found that dwelling on them excessively can be detrimental both mentally and physically as essential parts of a cell's DNA, its telomeres, become shortened when stressed, affecting the way cells age.

Mind wandering or negative thought patterns also appear to be unhealthy for telomeres – essential parts of a cell’s DNA – which when under stress become shortened, impacting our health and how our cells age. 

In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer researchers Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel identified several of these ageing thought patterns – cynical hostility; rumination; pessimism; thought suppression and mind wandering.

When I’ve experienced a period of unhappiness in my life I’ve often sought external change – my job, hairstyle, or even home – only for such feelings to eventually find me again. 

Changing the way I think could be longer-lasting. According to the authors of The Telomere Effect, making changes to our mental habits can protect our telomeres and improve our health. One such strategy is thought awareness, which can build resilience as we learn to attach less meaning to our thoughts.

I decided to put such internal awareness to the test through an opposite thought experiment. 
To do this, I took the advice of the late poet and philosophy John O’Donohue. In an interview with Krista Tippett, he suggested a simple thought exercise that involved tracking your most common thoughts and devising a new set.

For the first week of the experiment, I noted and catalogued my thoughts in the notes section of my iPhone. By day seven, the themes were clear – worrying about the future; worrying about what other people think; beating myself up for perceived flaws; comparing myself to others; negatively internalising other people’s actions or words; and ruminating on the past. 

What was most startling when reflecting on this list was that each worrying thought was outside of my control. What people think of me, the future, and what other people do is not something I can change by mulling over it. For the most part, I can’t control what happens in my life, but I can control how I think about it.

In the second week, I developed an alternative thought to each on my list. In the following weeks, each time I noticed myself falling into the mental loop of worrying about my career trajectory, I would tell myself, “I’m doing what I can now with what I have.”

If I found myself lost in thoughts of the past or replaying interactions, I repeated “Be open to the surprises in the present.”

A simple reminder when I was slipping into another negative thought spiral was simply to ask myself, “Can I control or change this?” 

When we test and probe our most common thoughts, we begin to see how our thoughts are constructed – and how much control we really do have.

What became clear in this experiment is that we can’t believe everything we think. We have choices. We can apply thought awareness, get creative and develop a new set of thoughts, or simply let our thoughts pass without renumerating or attaching meaning. 

Negativity, stress and even worry serves a purpose – it enables us to think critically about our environment and actions. But that’s not to say our thoughts couldn’t do with a good spring-cleaning once in a while.

Three tips on how to reframe your negative thoughts:

1. Take note of your negative thoughts

Spend a week or more writing down your most common thoughts to develop an understanding of your own world of though.

2. Spring clean your mind

Out with the old, in with the new. Invent an entirely new thought for each on your list and take note on how changing the way you think changes the world around you.

3. Focus on what you can control

Ask if what you’re thinking about is within your control. If the answer is no, acknowledge the thought is just a thought and try to let it pass without attaching meaning.

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