In the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff at Work, Dr. Richard Carlson writes, "Most of us use our thinking as ammunition against ourselves many times a day, without even knowing it...We engage in 'thought attacks' and mentally rehearse problems, concerns, and outcomes that may or may not manifest themselves. We engage in negative speculation and attach motives to the behavior of others. We live not in the moment, but in the anticipation of future moments."
When I read those words, they really rang true to me. I spend countless hours thinking about what could happen in the future—preparing for the worst, I tell myself, just so I'm not disappointed or surprised. When I think back on all the scenarios I've imagined, it's shocking how many of those have never happened. Though I stressed and worried and thought about them (just as if they were really happening!), they never occurred. These "thought attacks" were happening in real life, while these imagined scenarios were only occurring in my mind.
When I think about it now, it seems so silly to worry and fret about things that have never happened (and probably won't), but I know it's so much easier to say, "Oh, I won't worry about that next time!" than it is to actually not worry when a potentially worrisome situation presents itself. Even thought these are my thoughts, sometimes it feels as if they are coming from somewhere else. Sometimes it really does feel like an attack once I get on a roll of imagining what could go wrong. But, as much as it feels like there is an attack going on in my mind, I know these are my thoughts and I have the power to take control of them, to defend myself against their attacks.
If you've ever faced a thought attack—worrying about what could happen in the future before it had even happened!—you know how difficult it can be to dominate those attacking thoughts and focus on the present moment, but I've discovered a few tricks that help me defend myself against those thought attacks...
REALIZE IT IS JUST A THOUGHT.
First and foremost, it's important to realize that it's just a thought. As real as our thoughts sometimes feel, they are not reality—especially those thoughts about what's going to happen in the future. We might feel strongly about what could happen, but we don't know for sure. There's no way of knowing what the future holds. This means that what we're thinking isn't knowledge—we can't predict the future!—but merely ideas. And these ideas are driven mostly by our feelings, which can often get carried away (especially when facing a stressful situation). As a result, the first and most important step of defending yourself against a thought attack is to recognize those thoughts for what they are: just thoughts, not reality.
CHALLENGE YOUR THOUGHTS.
Once you've addressed the fact that your thoughts are just thoughts, it's time to challenge them. Look at them from an objective perspective (hard, I know, but try!) and question them. Ask yourself, "Is this definitely going to happen? How do I know that for sure?" and "Even if it does happen, am I 100% certain this is going to play out the way I imagine it will?" Once you ask yourself these questions, you'll probably realize that things are guaranteed. And even if you convince yourself that it's definitely going to happen—which you really can't know for sure!—you'll realize that you don't know exactly how things will go. Even the worst-case scenario can sometimes lead to something unexpectedly wonderful.
PUT YOUR THOUGHTS ON PAPER.
Still struggling to come to terms with the fact that your imagined future isn't a reality? It's time to break out some pen and paper (or pull up a fresh doc on your computer) and write it out. When you start putting these thoughts of yours on the stark white of a blank page, you begin to see the faults in them. The cracks in the "truth" you've been holding onto start to show when you take the thoughts from your mind and actually read them on a page. And if putting them in writing still doesn't change your thinking pattern and push you in a more positive direction, pass that piece of paper to a friend or loved one. Sometimes an outside party can be more objective and can help you see where your thoughts are running away from reality.
DEVELOP A DEFENSIVE MANTRA.
One of the best ways to defend yourself is thought attacks is to stop them before they get started because it's much easier to nip them in the bud early than it is to fight them off once they're already on a roll. A great way to defend against them is to have a mantra you can use when you find yourself heading down a thought attack path. It can be something simple like "Stop!" or, my personal favorite, "Nope!" Or you can use something like, "I will not allow my thoughts to attack me." or "My thoughts are not my reality." When you have a mantra at the ready, you can use it to counterattack your thoughts when they start imagining and worrying about what might never happen.