Studies in Neuroscience have shown that the average adult has about 70,000 thoughts per day. Wow. Take that in for a moment.
There's more: 90% of those thoughts are thoughts that are cycled in from the previous day – so an overwhelming majority of our thoughts are boring re-runs, and are ones that we habitually think!
Thoughts aren’t bad. We need them to process and understand our world. Yet we can allow certain thoughts to move in, set up shop, and DRIVE THE BUS that is our life.
Thoughts aren’t going away. Yes, we can meditate, practice stillness or do yoga, yet for most of us (who aren’t full-time Buddhist monks), we are going to have thoughts during the daily activities of our lives (cooking, driving, walking, working, conversations, etc.).
Allow Thought To BE
People try many ways to STOP thought. Drinking, drugs, romantic love, food, and Netflix, to name a few. It’s this constant battle – a struggle to stop, shut down, run away, and escape thought.
Ever heard of the quote, “The only way out is through?”
To get relief, to feel a sense of peace despite the turmoil of our lives, despite thought, we can CHOOSE to ALLOW our thoughts to come in and then, after noticing them ("yes, I hear you"), we can turn them out ("thank you and good day").
Yet, sometimes thoughts seem so persistent and BIG that they simply won’t go away.
Change Your Relationship with Thought
What can you do when faced with a kind-of-monstrous thought that is determined to ruin your experience of life and the present moment; a thought that seems so real and convincing?
Know that, no matter how difficult our thoughts are, we DO have the power to change the way we look at thoughts AND change the way we relate to them, so that they affect us less and less.
ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a counseling modality that we’ve been working with more and more. ACT is similar to Mindfulness in that it doesn’t ask us to CHANGE our thoughts (i.e. from positive to negative), but to NOTICE them and then CHANGE THE WAY WE LOOK AT THEM.
ACT asks us to change our relationship status with thoughts - from say, "in a relationship" or "it's complicated" to "just acquaintances" - so that they don’t feel so CLOSE, so intertwined with our sense of being....not so big, heavy, and overwhelming.
A brilliant art therapy activity to help us process and understand this idea is the ACT-inspired party banner! This activity was introduced to us by the YMCA where we teach mindfulness and ACT to teens.
This party banner takes a very heavy, difficult and dark thought and presents it back to us in a way that is lighter.
ACT Party Banner - Art Therapy
Start with a thought that is particularly troubling for you, such as "I'm not interesting," or "Nobody loves me."
Important! This activity is NOT about simplifying, belittling or minimizing your experience. We are NOT asking you to simply forget your worries or to leave your feelings invalidated.
This activity is also not about agreeing or disagreeing with your thought. This is all about changing the dynamic between the heavy thoughts and us. Usually we associate difficult thoughts with powerful, dark colours like black, blue and red. They feel scary or threatening.
When we decorate the party banner with our negative thought, we encourage participants to use fun, bright and joyful colours. Use glitter! Stickers! It is a party banner after all! This exercise is powerful in that it seems counter-intuitive and silly, even sarcastic.
Sometimes, participants notice that the relationship with their negative thought changes almost immediately. The change could be slight – minuscule – or drastic.
While the troubling thought may still be there, you have created distance between yourself and the thought by lightening the energy around it, thereby giving the thought much less power over you.
Your New Approach To Thought
Going forward, participants are asked to think about their party banner when that thought comes up again – imagine that the banner runs through your mind, going past like a train (a party train?) and notice if you feel more space and distance from the thought than before.
With time, and as you put less and less energy into the thought through this practice of distancing, the thought may barely come up for you anymore. Will this take time and work and patience? Yes, yes, and yes. But it will get better.
Thank you for reading. If you are struggling, and need extra support with the concepts offered here, please reach out to someone in your community, use online resources, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are in crisis, check in at your nearest hospital or walk-in clinic.
*Some of the images used here are not ours, and we've cited the location that they can be found in the images' titles.