Tie your shoes. Drive a car. File taxes. Cook a chicken. Floss. Some skills are so fundamental to being an adult that most everyone picks them up one way or another, whether from family, at school, or even from television shows.
But there’s one skill that can lower your stress, up your resilience, and help you move toward the most important goals in your life—and hardly anyone teaches or learns it. The skill? Managing negative thoughts.
How have we not made this skill a priority? Every single person has thoughts all day, every day, like an endless social media feed in our minds, and many of those thoughts aren’t friendly. Some make you feel sad, some angry. You have guilty, anxious and embarrassed thoughts. You have thoughts of shame, perhaps the most painful of them. These thought-fueled emotions raise your stress levels, keeping you stuck in a difficult cycle of thought-emotion-stress.
If you can recognize and handle these types of thoughts and feelings, you have a much better chance of being happier and healthier. If you don’t have this skill, well, it’s never too late to learn.
Trap It, Map It, Zap It: The answer to negative thoughts
You can’t just snap your fingers and cancel out a thought, but you can become aware of sudden strong emotions and map them back to the underlying thoughts in order to examine whether they are valid or not. Then you’re more likely to zap the stress that resulted and get on with your day. At meQuilibrium, we call this process Trap It, Map It, Zap It. Here’s how it works.
1. Trap the Emotion.
At first, you may not be able to identify the thoughts that trigger your emotion. However, you can probably recognize its symptoms. Is your heart beating faster? Are you weepy for no clear reason? Do you have a hollow feeling in the pit your stomach? Is your mouth dry? When moments like this come along, flag them. Tell yourself, “I’m feeling angry (or anxious or frustrated) right now.” Saying it out loud makes you better able to distance yourself from it.
2. Map the Thought
Once you realize how you’re feeling, tell yourself, “I’m feeling angry (or anxious or frustrated, etc.) right now, so I must be having a thought that’s prompting this emotion.” Again, saying it out loud helps. Where are these feelings coming from? What thoughts flash through your mind? When’s the last time you had this feeling? Once you’ve identified the thought or story behind the feeling, write it down.
3. Zap the Thought
Now that you’ve found the thought, test if it’s true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought real, or am I inventing something that’s not really there?” For example, say you’re hit with sadness, and you map the emotion to the thought that your friend didn’t call because she doesn’t like spending time with you. Is that true? If it is, then it may be time to have a talk with your friend. But if not (and this is the case nine times out of 10), you’ll see that it’s a false thought. Once you zap the thought, the emotion will dissipate and go away.
You will have thoughts in your head every waking hour. Learning how to manage them doesn’t just make you feel better in the moment; you gain more control of how you react to the events of your life. It’s like learning how to drive the car of the your mind—now you can go wherever you want to go.