Controlling Your Thoughts (T)

17.09.2020 |

Episode #5 of the course Control your emotions, control your life by Dr. Sofia Santiago


In Lesson 4, you learned to control the situations that trigger unwanted emotions. In this one, you’ll focus on controlling your thoughts.

But first: don’t think of a white bear!

Ha. I know you just thought of a white bear.


The White Bear Problem

The fact that you thought of a white bear just because I asked you not to is explained by the ironic process theory, a.k.a. The White Bear Problem. The theory states that the more you try to suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they are to surface. You can really not think of a white bear when you tell yourself not to, because by “listening in your mind” to the request and processing it, you need to imagine a white bear.

This theory will help you understand, for instance, why many diets fail: the more someone keeps thinking, “I’m on a diet! I shouldn’t think about food!” the more they have those thoughts. The more they have those thoughts, the more they salivate, and, well, we all know what happens next.

What happens with the thoughts that evoke unpleasant emotions is no different: telling yourself to not think of them is ineffective. What you need to do is replace the negative thought with a pleasant one. Think of something else, my friend. Distract yourself!

By replacing a negative thought with something that positively engages your mind, you make it more likely that you won’t return to that negative thought. [1]


Pleasant Thoughts Collection

Here’s a tip: reverting to the same positive thoughts is easier than trying to come up with new ones on the fly.

I have two go-to positive thoughts that, no matter how bad things are, bring cozy feelings to my heart. One is the memory of the first time I saw my firstborn daughter Dani’s face.

The second is a memory of my eldest stepdaughter, Jaime. After my wedding with her Dad, I leaped in the pool wearing my wedding gown, and all the guests followed. Jamie is usually reserved, so remembering her cannonballing into the pool in full formal attire and makeup never fails to make me smile. Thinking of what really matters to me shields me from unhappy thoughts.


Your Turn

I’ve told you a story, now you tell me one—a good one. Pause your reading and dig up a memory you cherish. Or tell me about someone important in your life and fun or touching experience you shared.

Re-live the story in your mind clearly, take your time with it, and smile.

Keep the memory at hand for next time you feel worried, overwhelmed, stressed, or sad. Gather a “treasure chest” of happy memories that you can unbox anytime you feel yourself slipping into a negative space emotionally.


Don’t Overthink!

You’ve learned to manage your emotions by controlling your Thoughts (T), and next you’ll learn about controlling your Attention (A).

Notice how these practices overlap and don’t get caught up in diagnosing which technique to use in which specific situation.

The STAR™ techniques are interrelated. So if you think, “Should I change my attention or my thoughts?” Well, sometimes when you change one the other changes too.

For instance, let’s say that you have a big presentation tomorrow, where you’ll speak in front of some top executives, and you’re starting to get super anxious. You can’t stop thinking about the things that can go wrong! “What if they ask something I don’t know?” “What if I run out of time?” To calm your anxiety, you decide to quit thinking about what might go wrong, and instead go test the projector, backup your slides, and do other things to reduce the likelihood of running into trouble. In doing so, you distract yourself from the anxiety-provoking thoughts by focusing your attention on other things. You changed your thoughts because you changed what you focused your attention on. Can you see how that works?

This is not a deeply philosophical course, so don’t overthink it. Just focus on getting practical ideas that will help you control negative emotions.

Speaking of focusing, that’s what we’ll do in the next lesson, so see you then.



Recommended book

The 5-Minute Happiness Journal: Practices to Help You Tap Into Joy Every Day by Leslie Marchand LCSW


Work cited

[1] Pittman, C. & Karle, E. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic and Worry. New Harbinger Publications


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