Thinking and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Is there any relation between thinking and stress? Can we think ourselves into stress reactions?

It’s an interesting question when you consider that stress is about dealing with threats. Do we threaten ourselves? The evolution of our stress systems was essentially about dealing well with external threats, like severe weather, predators and attacks from our own kind. So how might our own, private thinking get us in to trouble with stress?

Thinking is a way of using what our brain and mind have stored from our experiences in life. If you can imagine what happens in all of the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years and decades of experience that our minds register, interpret and store, you can see that we carry a lot in our heads.

Our stream of thought and feeling is very busy. Attempts to estimate how many different thoughts we have each day puts the number at about 65,000. That’s busy!! What are these minds of ours doing?

If you watch your mind for a while you’ll notice that it goes all over the place. Even while you’re reading this you might notice all kinds of things coming up, taking you away for moments here and there. Don’t worry, that’s completely typical of minds. Minds are pretty chaotic. But there are lots of things that our minds do quite predictably. One extremely common mind habit is to go back to the past, to things that we didn’t like, that hurt us, that we felt embarrassed by, that we regret. Our thinking is often trying to set things right (in our own mind), finding who’s to blame, how it would all be different if that thing never happened, how unfair it was, how we could have handled if differently. But here’s the point – can any of us change what has already happened? Truly, what’s done is done and the best we can do is learn and accept.

So if our minds are churning away on distressing things from our pasts that we cannot change, might that not arouse the body and mind into states of stress?

Another place that the mind likes to hang out is in the future. We create all kinds of stories in our heads about how things will be. We don’t mean to, it’s just something that minds do when we’re not minding our mind. We imagine successes, embarrassing failures, and disasters galore. We get pulled into these stories and feel at the same time that they have a truth and certainty in them. Mark Twain wrote,”I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Might a mind churning out an anxious future and a tomorrow gone rotten cause us stress?

What we think of as thinking can be a commotion of ideas, memory fragments, feelings, and physical reactions – things that can’t really be separated any more clearly than can the ingredients of a well-cooked soup. Minds can act like museums of memories that are animated by mean-spirited fiction writers that time travel with abandon – B-movies without end.

What to practice? ‘Getting real’ with yourself might help a lot. Try watching your mind a little every day. Maybe just check in with what’s going on in your mind, looking in as you would look in a window, being honest and not trying to change what you see but just taking it in. If you’re in the past, or in the future, or running yourself down, notice that, notice how it feels. And try to let that moment teach you a little about how your own thinking may be one of the primary agents for generating some of the very stress that you don’t want in your life.