Last week, my mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) group discussed stress and the role of thinking in creating stress. We all agreed that thoughts can be as stressful–if not more stressful–than actual events.

How does this work?

Human beings are blessed with sophisticated brains that allow us to hypothesize, analyze, and plan. This higher functioning helps us avoid or prevent certain types of stress (e.g., planning for retirement, making a weekly meal plan and grocery list; having the foresight to buy more toothpaste before we run out). It’s valuable and adaptive in many ways, but it comes with a downside: It allows us to think our way into a stress reaction!

Imagine lying in bed ruminating about something that happened at work, our mind going a mile a minute: “How dare he?” “I should have said something!” “What if I get written up?” “Maybe I should look for a different job” “I should update my LinkedIn profile right now!” Our heart rate speeds up, our muscles tense, our fist and jaws clench. We may even hop out of bed and log in to our LinkedIn profile. When this happens, we’ve responded behaviourally and physiologically to a thought–a mere string of words our mind generated–as if it were an imperative.

can't sleep

Reacting to our thoughts as though they’re 100% crucial and true is something we all do. In MBSR, I teach participants that not every thought is a critically important news bulletin. I argue that, in contrast, a great many of our thoughts don’t need to be engaged with or attended to at all, and can instead be treated as simple strings of words created by our busy minds.

One way to apply this idea is to imagine your mind as an email inbox and some of your thoughts as spam. You don’t take seriously every email offering you miracle weight loss or informing you that you’ve just won £100,000,000, right? Similarly, you don’t need to take seriously every thought that runs through your mind. Some thoughts are merely mind spam that can be observed and disregarded, just like spam email.

spam alert

The trick is to learn to notice thoughts as they arise and pass through our minds, the same way we’d watch a bird fly by our window or a leaf float down a stream. My favourite metaphor is standing on the sidewalk watching the ‘thought parade’ go by. When watching a parade, we don’t jump into the parade floats, engage with the floats, or try to change them or do anything about them. we just watch them go by.

Try this: for a minute, close your eyes and try to stand on the sidewalk of the thought parade. Watch each thought go by: “Is it almost lunch?” “I have to respond to that email” “This exercise is weird” “I need a coffee” “My back hurts” “What time do I need to leave to pick up my daughter?” “I really have to respond to that email.” Don’t try to do anything about the thoughts, just see them for what they are: strings of words. It can help to label each thought: thought about lunch; thought about email; thought about the exercise, thought about coffee; thought about pain; thought about scheduling; another thought about email.

med at work

Watching the thought parade can be interesting. We might notice that some thoughts create a physiological response–a positive or negative jolt. We might notice that some thoughts keep are recurring. We might notice that certain thoughts tend to lure us into the parade (“To pick up my daughter on time, I have to leave at 4:30. Hmmm, maybe 4:15, but no, I have that meeting at 3pm, Ugh I don’t want to go to that meeting…”). When you notice that you’ve engaged with your thoughts and that you’re ten blocks down the parade route, just step out and start over, watching thoughts go by and remembering that many thoughts are mere mental spam.