Head Conversations and When
Thinking is Bad for Us

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I term 'head conversations' those little chats we have with ourselves, silently and in our own heads. We all do it almost constantly. We debate the pros and cons of things, wonder whether we should have done or said something that's past, worry about what might happen 'if' in the future…

Are you aware of how much of each day you spend having a conversation with yourself? I'm always telling patients that, as far as I'm concerned, there are only two reasons to think... 

The only two reasons for thinking are:

1. You are getting paid to do it

i.e. it's part of your job to be trying to work something out

2. It's giving you pleasure

I include in this anything you are choosing to think about not necessarily because it's pleasurable, but because doing so will make your life easier. An example might be that you are compiling a shipping list.

If it's not either of the above - what are you doing it for?

I know there will be people now saying that they can't help it. That their minds introduce thoughts that they didn't ask for.

Of course they do!

Brains try to be helpful. They try to predict what we want them to do.

Your brain will make a link between any two things that happen together more than once.

If there is a large amount of negative arousal associated with any occasion the brain will often make the link after just one instance. That's the work of the survival instinct learning to identify any situation which could be potentially life threatening. By definition, any situation which creates a high degree of negative arousal (pain, fear, sadness, etc) in the person is identified as a potential killer so needs to be remembered asap. 

So, if we are in the habit of worrying when we get into bed, recalling something bad that happened when we see a particular date on the calendar, or thinking about a previous panic attack when we revisit the supermarket, your brain is only doing what you have taught it when it gives you the warning the next time that situation arises.

And what do we usually do when we get that warning - yes, we think about how bad it was all over again! And so we confirm for our brains that they were right to warn us because we are still responding with negative arousal.

And does all this self talk benefit us? Do we need it?

Of course we don't!

Once you start to become aware of when you are doing it, you will also come to realise that for the most part these head conversations are just winding you up. They rarely fall into either of the two categories I named above, of being either paid or pleasurable.

They are simply a bad habit. And this bad habit includes worry and guilt. Neither of these serves any useful purpose either. Did you ever change anything you were worrying about simply because you were worrying?

But we didn't always have this habit...

There once was a Golden Era

There was, however, a time for each of us when we didn't do this, a time before we had the ability to do this, a golden era when we had little choice but to be for ever 'in the moment'.

The concept of being 'in the moment' is one which is central to the concept of mindfulness. Put simply, if we were able to keep our focus on the here and now and only that, the majority of us would be calmer and able to cope with actual reality almost all of the time. But we rarely do that.

The rot sets in when we learn language and start talking.

If you have the opportunity to observe a toddler playing, you will notice that whatever that child does, it does with its total attention. A toddler doesn't do things by halves. Whatever it focuses on, it gives its all. If it's building a pile of bricks it is totally absorbed in the task. It may not stay on that same task for any great length of time, but when it moves from it to something else, it takes its entire focus of attention with it.

A toddler doesn't build a pile of bricks whilst at the same time wondering what's for tea, or whether it will be able to go out tomorrow, etc. Because that child has not yet learnt language it finds it impossible to mentally wander from the here and now in its thoughts…

Our downfall is learning to talk and then abusing it by thinking too much.

Once we learn language, however, we become too clever for our own good. We frequently find ourselves doing one thing but thinking about something completely different. We rarely keep our minds and our bodies together in the same place.

We go further than that and hold conversations with ourselves in our heads as we carry out unrelated tasks. For example, you may be washing up but in your mind you are discussing why a certain person ignored you in the supermarket this morning and what are you going to do if she ignores you again tomorrow… and so on.

Many of these conversations actually serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Some of them would be termed, 'worrying'. Worry is an activity we all indulge in for far too much of the time and which has no point whatsoever.

There is a time and a place for thinking. If, for instance, you are trying to work something out or plan something, maybe a holiday, then running through the options or coming up with ideas in your mind has a purpose. Much of our so-called 'thinking', however, is really just a bad habit of worrying head conversations which raise the arousal level and makes us more prone to anxiety.

So what do I do about all these unnecessary head conversations?

The long term goal is to see how often you can catch yourself doing this and simply blank then let it go.

The immediate goal is to see how much of each day you can simply keep your mind on what you are actually doing but without having to mentally commentate to yourself in words when it isn't necessary.

As is described on the page about visualisation the most damaging head conversations are had by those who have to do something or go somewhere and start thinking about this in advance.

They tend to imagine all the worst case scenarios and think in terms of, 'what if…?' Doing this means that we wind ourselves up in advance. We are teaching our survival instinct about situations it can expect to sense danger in.

Whilst doing this we generally experience a great deal of anticipatory anxiety i.e. anxiety which serves no useful purpose and which is caused by the fact that you are simply visualising the worst and living it in advance. You are also imagining something that might not even happen if you weren't training your brain to expect to to!

So the message here is to aim day by day to catch yourself having just one or two pointless head conversations and blank them. This is easiest to do when you are doing something routine.

Perhaps when you are in the shower you might choose to become aware of the feel of the water on your skin, the smell of the soap, etc.

When doing the washing up you might be aware of the feel of the water on your hands, be aware of the sight of the water running over the dishes, the feel of the dish in your hand...

In time you will find that you indulge in this bad habit less and less and enjoy reality instead. 

Find other Anxiety Zappers

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Self Help
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