We’re rightly concerned about “Fake News” — fabricated stories created in order to sway people’s political choices or simply to sell online advertising. But our thoughts are often “fake news,” and similarly have powerful effects on us. Much of what we think isn’t true, and that’s especially true of the thoughts that make us freak out and cause us to become anxious, panicked, or depressed.
Our minds create stories. They perform the important function of taking fragments of information and turning them into narratives. Sometimes these stories are true and helpful — for example when our ancestors learned that eating a particular berry led to painful stomach cramps. Creating a story out of those two snippets of experience could literally be life-saving.
But we often create stories that are neither true nor useful. For example, when we’re in pain or sick, depressed or anxious, we commonly assume that how we’re feeling is going to continue forever, or that it’s going to get worse. We might tell ourselves that nobody cares. Those thoughts are stories, and they take already existing pain and add on top an extra and unnecessary layer of suffering — hence the expression, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
The worst thing is that we’re like gullible news-consumers; we tend to believe every thought that passes through our minds, often not even entertaining the possibility that they might be lies.
As you practice mindfulness, however, you can learn to be more skeptical. You can learn to notice whether or not a particular thought is true and whether it is helping you. One rule of thumb is this: notice what effect your thoughts are having on your feelings.
Do your thoughts spark feelings of joy, connection, and engagement? Or do they make you feel small and powerless, or push your emotional buttons until you feel that your mind is out of control, in a spiral of anxiety, depression, or anger?
In observing the effects that your thinking has on how you feel, it’s particularly useful to observe the area around the heart and the solar plexus, since these are the primary places our feelings are experienced. And when we talk about noticing feelings, we’re talking about observing sensations in the body. Often when you ask someone how they feel, they’ll say something like “I feel like a loser.” But “like a loser” is a thought, not a feeling. The actual feeling — the pattern of sensations in the body, might be something like “despondency” or “sadness.” Name what you feel. Let go of the thoughts.
If you find yourself noticing that a thought makes you feel unhappy, this can be a prompt not just to let go of engaging with it — dropping the story — but to investigate whether the thought is actually true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought true?”
Often the mind clings to old patterns, however, and so it’ll say “Yes, it’s true! Of course it’s true!”
So ask again, but this time ask probe a little deeper: “Is this absolutely true?” Asking a second time usually prompts us to find exceptions and counter-examples to the story we’ve been telling ourselves. It helps us to let go of old patterns of thought.
And another very interesting question for us to ask ourselves is this: “What would things be like if I didn’t have this thought?” (This is a question that the spiritual teacher Byron Katie is famous for.)
So a typical pattern might be like this:
We have a thought like, Nobody likes me. I’m always going to be lonely.
Notice that the thought creates unpleasant feelings.
Ask: Is this true? “Yes!” comes the response.
Ask: Is this absolutely true? “Well, I do have friends, and there are people I get on with at work.”
OK. Now we’re less attached to our suffering-inducing thoughts.
Ask: What would it be like not to have this thought? “Well, I guess maybe I’d feel less fearful of whether people liked me or not. Maybe I’d feel more confident. Stronger.”
Now you’ve begun to step out of your normal mindset — the trap of stories that you’ve woven for yourself — and have opened up to the possibility of change.
But it’s crucial to allow the insight “Not all of my thoughts are true or helpful” into awareness. We need to seriously take this on board, and start to be more skeptical about our thinking. Only then will we start to see how often our minds exaggerate or lie to us, creating stories that cause us to freak out.
Our 28-day online course, Stop Freaking Out: Finding Calm Amidst the Chaos, starts April 1.