Your thoughts have a lot of power. Whether you realize it or not, you also have a lot of power over your thoughts. When you learn how to take command of your overthinking, negative, distorted. and fear-based thoughts, you’ll experience less anxiety and live a happier, more fulfilling life. Simply put, changing your thinking changes your life.
Changing your thoughts isn’t just about engaging in positive thinking. It’s about learning how to understand what’s going on inside you, acknowledging emotions, and recognizing thinking patterns you may have developed at a very young age. It’s also about getting off thought trains that are leading you to the wrong destinations.
In this post, I talk about the lenses you use to see your world, why you’re prone to falling into negative or fear-based thinking—and how to develop better thinking habits. We’ll take at how overthinking prevents you from making forward progress in your life—and what to do about that. I’ll also teach you how to calm your chattering “monkey mind” when it simply doesn’t want to shut up.
This post is for informational purposes only and is not to be considered medical advice nor used to diagnose or treat medical conditions; if you need professional help, please seek it. Also, this post contains both affiliate links featuring recommended resources from which B&C might receive a modest fee and non-affiliate links. Learn more.
Seeing things as they really are: the lesson of the telescope and microscope
Your thinking is based on how you view the world. But what if there’s something distorting your ability to see what’s really happening right in front of you?
Through the lens of the telescope, we easily see large things that are off in the distance. The objects are actually huge, but through the telescope, they appear small to us.
Through the microscope, we can look at tiny, tiny objects; through the microscope’s lens, they appear large to us.
Both the telescope and the microscope have their uses; one makes big stuff appear small, and the other makes small stuff appear big. Sometimes we need the power of these two tools, but they’re not the best way to look at everything in your life.
As you choose the lenses you use to see your world, make sure you’re not making the big stuff (i.e., the really important things and people in your life) small. Likewise, don’t make the small stuff bigger than it deserves to be, either. Your reality begins in your thinking—when you change your thinking, you can change your life.
Negative thought trains: what they are and how to stop them
Thought trains are a series of single thoughts that come one after the next; each new thought takes you to a new place that may or may not be related to the original thought. Sometimes, a thought train takes you where you want to go. Other times, your train of thought can lead you to some pretty scary places.
- Are you making yourself sick with thoughts that stress you out?
- Do you worry too much?
- Do you ruminate in negative thoughts about all that can go wrong?
- Do you sometimes have trouble sleeping because your mind won’t stop thinking?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you are likely boarding thought trains that are taking you in the wrong direction.
You have more control over your thoughts than you think
Sometimes it may seem like your mind has a “mind” of its own over which you have no control. Yet, that’s not the truth. When a thought comes to the mind, you can observe it and choose whether to engage in the thought or release it for a different thought. [Eckhart Tolle talks about this extensively in his bestselling book, The Power of Now.] Tolle describes the one entity as the “observer in your mind; the other is the “thinker” in your mind.
When you’re in “thinker” mode, you’re engaged in the dialogue going on. Worriers tend to get drawn into an ever-descending dialogue of dread, doubt, and fear. When you’re in “observer” mode, you can stand by in a neutral way rather than getting emotionally engaged.
You have the choice to observe or engage in your thoughts
As an observer, when you notice helpful thoughts popping into your mind, you can give the green light for your “thinker” mind to further engage. When you observe something that is not helpful, or even worse, harmful, you can redirect your thinker mind to move on to a better thought.
You always have the option to redirect your thoughts. You can always decide to deliberately plant positive thoughts rather than waiting for them to show up. Yet, if you’ve not been doing this, it will take a good deal of practice. [I recommend starting with K.C. Myler’s book, Toxic Thoughts: 5 Simple Ways to Take Control of Your Thoughts and Emotions.]
Recognize and befriend the observer within your mind; it’ll point you away from suffering and towards a more peaceful, positive state of mind. Here are a few affirmations that you can recite to remember your intention to stop boarding negative throught trains:
- I choose to only board thought trains that serve my highest good.
- Thoughts have energy, and I choose to engage in thoughts that lift me up.
- I allow unhelpful thoughts to dissipate into the nothingness from whence they came.
- I welcome encouraging, helpful, positive thoughts that bring light and joy into my world.
Types of thinking that don't support a positive life
Both fear-based thinking and overthinking take their toll on your emotional well-being. These two negative thought patterns work in different ways.
Fear-based thinking (how to stop scaring yourself with thoughts of doubt, fear, and doom)
Who doesn’t like a good story? They’re entertaining. Thought-provoking. They can be funny or serious … happy or sad.
Stories that take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions are fun when we’re talking about a play or a movie. It’s not so great to be scaring yourself on a day-to-day basis with thoughts filled with doubt and doom and gloom.
- What are the anxiety-provoking stories you tell yourself through your thoughts?
- How do those stories interfere with your peace of mind?
- How do those fear-filled thoughts block your happiness?
- How do they perpetuate your anxiety … your stress … your unhappiness?
Here’s an example. Say, you gave your heart to someone, and you really thought it was going to work out, but it ended badly; do you tell yourself the “story” that loving others always leads to heartbreak?
Another example: If you got rejected for a couple of jobs that you really, really—I mean REALLY—wanted, what story do you tell yourself? Do you say, “I thought those jobs seemed great and I thought they’d be perfect for me, but I guess they weren’t meant to be. I believe I’m being redirected to something even better!” Or, do you cling to this story: “I can’t ever catch any breaks. I’m never going to land a great job that I’ll love.”
There’s a big difference between those two stories, wouldn’t you agree?
Why are the stories you tell yourself about how life works so important?
Fear-based stories aren’t mere passing thoughts like most of the other 60,000+ thoughts you have each day; these fear-based thoughts have strong energy.
Negative thoughts create channels of beliefs in your mind, and once those channels are carved, you tend to fall back into them again and again and again. When your thoughts are filled with doubts, fears, anxiety, negativity, and resentment, then those thoughts block your ability to see how life can be so much better and happier than what you’re expecting.
Your stories (your thoughts) are the filter through which you experience your world
Gloominess begets gloominess. Doubt begets more doubt. Worry begets more worry. Yet, it works the other way around, too. Peace begets peace. Positivity begets more positivity. Joy begets more joy.
The longer you’ve been telling yourself negative, untrue or limiting stories (based on self-limiting beliefs), the deeper the channels in your mind. The key to letting go of old stories that continue to bring worry and fear into your life is to create new, happier stories based on a more optimistic mindset. Rivers create new channels all the time and so can you!
Just like in the example of the positive interpretation of the job rejection story, choose to believe something better is ahead for you rather than you can’t catch a break. Choose to believe that one or two examples (or more) of things going south of what you wanted does not mean things will never go your way.
The stories you tell yourself have power. So for goodness sake, stop scaring yourself. Instead, from now on start using that power to add peace, goodness, and joy to your life.
Here are a few affirmations you can start practicing to help end the stressful mind chatter and start thinking more positively:
- I am confident that life is rigged in my favor.
- It doesn’t matter which way the wind blows, I stand strong knowing I’m always okay.
- I see evidence that life is truly beautiful every single day.
- I am loveable, confident, beautiful, intelligent, and extremely blessed at all times.
- “I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way!” (lyric from the song Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma)
[View more affirmations for shifting perspective and changing your life]
Overthinking: what it is and how it holds you back
Some people struggle with what overthinking truly looks like. They wonder if they are just being thorough or if they are going too far.
Have you ever been told, “you’re overthinking this”? Or have you ever felt certain you were overthinking something but didn’t know what else to do? When you wonder whether you’re overthinking something, you probably are.
Life doesn’t always make sense. It just doesn’t. And frankly, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to such a ridiculous degree that my entire body yearns to scream “C’mon already – this is ridiculous!” So I go into overthinking mode. I decide if I can just figure out why my world isn’t working the way I think it should, then I’ll finally have peace and happiness.
Are you an “overthinker”?
Hey, I’m a realist. Maybe I haven’t traveled far enough down this road to be anywhere close to true enlightenment just yet, but any good highway system would have included a comfortable rest stop or two for us weary travelers somewhere along the way. Frankly, today I’m feeling like this road just bites.
Am I overthinking this life thing? That sounds like me. I guess I have gleaned one ounce of self-knowledge along the way: I overthink things.
Oh man, that’s not even the half of it, though. I not only overthink things: I secretly foster the belief that I’m in control and I get downright cranky when the world proves otherwise to me.
A massive tree falls in my yard. The dishwasher breaks. The medical center screws up my bill for the umpteenth time. The pain in my foot returns with a vengeance. Yes, I know these are all merely annoyances, things you’ve got to deal with but not so big that they should send you over the edge. In fact, I realize I should stop my whining already – I have a yard, I have a house, I have access to health care, and I have a foot that works.
Dang it. Now I feel guilty because, despite all my blessings, I’m staring at a void that’s leaving me dazed and confused and feeling totally lost. I’m ruminating on the big questions that cut to the core, and they’ve ganged up to demand my full attention right here, right now:
- What am I supposed to be doing with my life?
- Why does everything seem so unbearably difficult?
- Why do I feel so alone all the time?
- Why am I not experiencing the peace and joy and wonder that everyone talks about?
Am I alone in this? Am I the only one who loses her sense of direction more often than I think I should? So what is the answer to feeling dazed and confused and totally lost … and stuck in a cycle of overthinking that robs me of peace and happiness?
The cure for overthinking that is guaranteed to work.
I realize that you’ve taken the time to read this and so the proper thing for me to do here is to provide some answers. I’m sweating this a little right now because I’m not sure how you’re going to take the advice I intend to dish out. On the surface, it may seem trivial, and it certainly won’t come across as guru-like as you might prefer. But here’s the answer that comes to me today:
CHILL THE HECK OUT!
Yup. That’s it. Chill out … the same advice one would give a teen who was freaking out over the mall being sold out of the “right” style of sneakers. “Chill out.”
Here are some practical ways to “chill out”:
- Calm your mind; practice mindfulness
- Remember your core values and goals
- Be kind to yourself; Perform an act of kindness for another person
- Distract yourself with another activity (a physical one is best)
- Spend some time outside
Reset your expectations
When life isn’t making sense, you know what that’s called? Life. That’s how it works. You have control over your responses to it and over the choices you make, but you don’t have control over all the hills and valleys and detours along the way, so stop acting as if you do.
Overthinking is not my friend, and it’s not your friend either. If you want to have a happier life, you need to practice self-love, and overthinking is a sign you are not in tune with the frequency of love.
It’s time to get out of your head … take a few deep breaths … and for goodness sake, stop paying attention to the internal voices that demand that you have all the answers to everything right here and now. That’s your ego yammering on and on, and it really has no idea what it’s talking about. You’ll never have all the answers, and you don’t need to. Never, ever, ever.
This episode of being dazed and confused and totally lost that you’re going through right now will come to an end. Your soul’s compass will guide you if you’ll just let it. It can’t do that if you won’t give it space to do its work. The point of life isn’t to think your way through it, it’s to love yourself through it … and love the others around you through it.
When you’re overwhelmed, then do whatever it takes to create your own dang rest stop. Have a little fun. Let your hair down. Laugh more. You know, chill out. Then before you know it, answers to the real questions you actually need answers to show up … all at the perfect time.
Distorted thinking: you simply can’t believe everything you think
Do you wear glasses or contact lenses? If not, you lucky duck! If yes, you lucky duck, too, because isn’t it great that we have eyewear options to help us see clearly? We’re blessed either way. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Those who’ve been examined for eyeglasses or contacts will be able to relate to the metaphor I’m about to share. I think everyone else can get my drift, though. I’m near-sighted. I can see my computer and can read books just fine without assistance, but forget about driving or watching a movie without glasses or contacts—it’s all a big blur.
Every year, I go to the eye doctor. The routine is always the same, I go in prepared to answer the same basic questions over and over as the doctor asks, “Can you read this line?” I read it easily.
“Can you read the next line?” I read it, but not as easily.
“Can you read the next line?” This is typically where, at best, I’m able to guess what the letters might be based on the vague shapes that my eyes can make out. That is usually the point where the doctor gives up on my reading any more lines.
Then I get to go through a few more questions: Which is better, this lens or that lens? Frankly, I’m convinced many of those lenses are duplicates, but that’s not really pertinent to the story, so I’ll go on.
After I get through all the questions, I’m usually handed a new prescription that’s slightly different from the one I had before. As is always the case, my left eye is always significantly weaker than my right eye, so each requires a different strength lens for correction. Then, off I go to have my glasses made. One hour later and I have a new pair of glasses that work just great. Unless, of course, they don’t.
One time, I found my new lenses didn’t work at all. I couldn’t see a thing. I told the optician working with me that something was wrong. She smiled and assured me, saying “it takes time to get used to the new lenses dear.”
I’m a fairly agreeable person, but in this instance, I knew there was a bigger problem. So the person assisting me took the glasses to the back room to have the prescription re-verified.
“Oh my,” she comes back, explaining,“I’m so very sorry. They put the right eye lens where the left eye lens should be, and the left eye lens where the right eye lens belongs.”
Now imagine what could have happened if I’d thought she’s probably right and walked out with those glasses.
Would you want to be on the same road with me if I was driving around town with glasses that made it impossible for me to see? Your life and mine would have been in jeopardy.
How you view your life—the lenses or thoughts you choose—makes a HUGE difference in what you’ll experience
Every day I get to choose which lenses I will see my world through. If I view my life through distorted thinking, I’ll experience a pretty messed up life. Here are thought patterns I know I don’t want to adopt:
- Negativity … all things will appear negative.
- Scarcity … all I’ll ever see is lack.
- Fear … I’ll be scared all the time.
- Doubt … I’ll always doubt myself.
- Selfishness … I’ll drive others away.
If I want to experience a great life, I have to put on the right lenses every day. Here are a few good lenses I like to choose …
I’m not advocating putting on rose-colored glasses that completely distort the realities of your world. I’m simply saying that when I choose to see my life in the best possible light—through a positive lens rather than a distorted one— then what I experience is usually aligned with my sunnier viewpoint.
How to calm your mind when you’re trapped in negative thinking patterns
The good news is that there are five great ways to calm your over-active, negative thoughts, though you might not like what I’m about to say next.
Do you ever find that your mind sometimes runs on and on with thoughts that stress you out?
Here’s the part I said you won’t like: you’re the problem, not your mind. Ouch, that hurts a bit, doesn’t it? Sorry. Let me explain.
The problem is not with the person or the situation you’re going through that has your mind over-occupied; ultimately, the problem rests with how you’re processing the world around you.
When you change your thinking, you can change your reality.
The problem is how you’re thinking about the problem
You may think that the circumstances or the people in your life are causing you stress and anxiety, but that’s not the truth. The truth is your thoughts about those people and circumstances are what’s making you feel all gnarled up in knots.
To be fair, I will concede that at times life can be hard. There could be some ugly or uncomfortable things going down in your life right now, I know I’ve sure seen my fair share of drama and trauma. Work overload. Crushing financial hardships. Major life losses. Hurricanes of change bearing down on me all at once. Can you relate? Some days aren’t easy, my friend, not easy at all.
Then there’s what really matters in life: you and the people in your life. Self-love is essential; many of us skip that lesson. While love is what matters most in life, not all people make it easy to keep those compassionate vibes of tenderness alive. People can be quite irritating—or worse. I truly do want to be a loving person to all, but there are days when my thoughts have other intentions.
When you’re dealing with situations and people problems like these, your mind can go into overdrive making everything seem far worse than it really is. This is when you self-sabotage. You trade peace of mind for a piece of your mind, and that’s not helpful.
I used to let my mind run wild with all sorts of scary and ugly imaginings. My out-of-control thinking habit just kept getting worse and worse until one day, fed up and flat-out exhausted, I decided there had to be a better way.
So I experimented until I found relief, and here are the five habits I picked up that are now helping me tame my monkey mind and maintain my inner calm:
5 ways to calm your negative thoughts or overthinking mind quickly
1. Practice stillness
Just get quiet. Really quiet. I don’t care if it’s for five minutes or twenty minutes, or an hour. Remove all distractions and sit in stillness. Focus on
your breathing (even Harvard says breathwork helps stop stress) . If thoughts begin to distract you, return your focus to your breath.
2. Make mindfulness a priority
That cool cat Ram Dass had it right when he said, “Be Here Now.” When your mind is wandering, you’re not mindful of the moment you’re in. So come back fully to now.
3. Take deep, long breaths at the first twinge of anxiety
Sometimes the thoughts that begin the anxiety process go underground, and you first recognize them not through conscious awareness but rather through the physical sensation that something is amiss. When you feel those twinges tugging at you, pay attention. Return to calm by taking a few long, deep breaths. It gets you out of your mind and into your body, and you’ll find that practice is very soothing.
4. Remind yourself you don’t need others’ approval.
I used to have the very bad habit of worrying about what others thought of me (comparing myself to others), and that led to a lot of no-win internal dialogues. I now know that I can only care about what I think of myself, as I’m the only person I can do anything about. As for other people, I wish them no ill will. I know that what they think of me says more about them than it does about me.
5. Learn to smile at the Chatterbox inside your head
Left to its own devices, my mind likes to fast-forward into the future … or encourage me to be perfect … or ruminate on a myriad of unhelpful details. Oh, silly mind! Those thoughts aren’t helpful, nor is the emotional baggage and tension that comes with them. By learning to smile at them rather than take them seriously, I now easily release the thoughts as they no longer have any power over me.
Give these techniques a try next time you feel that those old babbling thoughts are angling to take over. While it may take a little time to incorporate these five habits into your daily practice, it’s well worth the effort. I promise they’ll offer the relief you need to change your thinking and so you can change your life.