6. Distancing from Thoughts

November 28, 2023

Once you've recognized your thoughts, it's time to create distance from them. To create this distance, you must be able to look at your thoughts squarely. Merely recognizing and acknowledging them is not enough due to the overwhelming negative thoughts that rise in our minds. If it were that simple, there wouldn't be anyone struggling with depression and anxiety in this world. This task must be carried out in a more refined manner. Fortunately, numerous cognitive therapy theories have patterned a series of thoughts that torment people. We broadly categorize these into two types. Let's examine each one.

The first type is 'inaccurate thoughts'. The reason why we entertain inaccurate thoughts is clear - because they've benefited us. Consider our ancestors, standing alone in a desolate field laden with all sorts of dangers – ambushes from other tribes, attacks from wild animals, venomous insects. How did humans survive this hazardous environment and evolve to become the most influential species on Earth? Undoubtedly, due to our cognitive abilities, well-represented by our name – Homo sapiens, meaning 'wise man'.

Figure 1. There are three types of 'inaccurate thoughts'.

But which specific cognitive ability allowed us to persevere so resiliently? It's our ability to entertain incorrect thoughts. Humans think, and thinking aids various judgments. However, these judgments are often inaccurate. Even if we lack substantial evidence, are biased, or interpret excessively, our minds swiftly draw conclusions. This characteristic bestows great advantages for survival. Imagine creatures meticulously and painstakingly weighing all their decisions. Could they have survived an attack from a wild beast? Probably not. The best course of action, in any case, is to flee. Hesitating to ponder 'should I escape, or should I fight?' could easily lead to death. Any species with such characteristics would hence become extinct. Thus, evolutionarily speaking, humans have an inherent ability to 'draw conclusions based on inadequate evidence'.

Moreover, humans tend to think in a predominantly negative direction, gaining a considerable survival advantage. Imagine if you were walking along a road and heard a loud laugh. It's a joyful sound. How would you react? You'd merely think, "someone is laughing happily," nothing more. We don't become alarmed at the sound of joyful laughter. But what about the sound of a loud horn? We jump in surprise. "What's happening?", "It's dangerous." Our ancestors had the same reaction. To ensure survival, we intrinsically predict events in a negative manner, allowing us to prepare and persevere. Optimism was a shortcut to extinction. Eventually, humans evolved to have a 'capability to predict the future in a consistently negative direction', known as a negative bias.

In addition, humans often associate events with themselves very easily, yet again because it offered substantial survival benefits. We inevitably look at everything from our own perspective and attribute meaning to it. "What does that mean to me?" Such a question prepares us to anticipate the future. Certainly, there must have been creatures with an "anything goes" type of attitude, not associating the significance of events with themselves. What happened to them? Once again, they became extinct. Thus, humans, through the course of evolution, developed the 'capability to excessively interpret the relevance of an event to oneself'.

Accurate thoughts were undoubtedly effective in prehistoric times. However, the same cannot be said for modern times. We no longer encounter wild beasts in desolate fields. The days of having our lives immediately endangered are long past. Yet human DNA does not change that easily. Incorrect thoughts continue to linger in our minds, generating various mental health issues.

The second type is 'unhelpful thoughts'. These generally stem from the attitude of considering a thought as the identical to oneself. Particularly, humans tend to 'evaluate' a certain subject (especially oneself) not as a psychological event but as directly pertaining to oneself, 'conceptualize' the narrative about oneself in a certain specific manner and identify with it and constantly 'reflect' on the significance of past thoughts and events, re-experiencing them as if they are occurring at the present moment. Evaluation, conceptualization, and reflection are prime examples of unhelpful thoughts. Though the operational mechanics are slightly different, all three types of thought invariably originate from being unable to view a thought as one of many psychological events.

Figure 2. There are also three types of 'unhelpful thoughts'.

The method to distance ourselves from inaccurate thoughts and unhelpful thoughts is straightforward. Once a thought has been recognized, before immediately responding to it, analyze if it's accurate and beneficial. If you're clinically struggling with depression and anxiety, a more systematic approach is necessary at this stage. However, if not, two simple questions suffice. "Is this accurate?", "Is this helpful?". If you can ask these two questions following recognizing a thought, you can drastically reduce the influence that negative thoughts have on you because the thoughts that cause suffering are either inaccurate or unhelpful.

Figure 3. After capturing a negative thought, ask yourself two questions. "Is this accurate?" "Is this helpful?”

This can be explained in connection with the first step. Have negative thoughts or emotions surfaced in your mind? Do you feel them? If so, stop for a moment and watch the leaves floating down the stream of thoughts. Just for 30 seconds. Keep watching the stream of thoughts until you realize that you are not in the stream but by the side of it. Once your position is clear, ask yourself the following questions. "Is this accurate?", "Is this helpful?". Even with this exercise alone, you can become reasonably free from the influence of negative thoughts.

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