Written by Jiovann Carrasco, LPC
Are you plagued with negative thoughts that keep coming back no matter what you do to try to stop having them? Do you avoid things, places, or situations that tend to trigger those thoughts? Do you try distracting yourself from them by watching TV, staying busy, drinking? Do you try to tell yourself the opposite to counteract or cancel out the negative thought? Have you noticed that whatever strategy you’ve been using hasn’t really worked in the long run? A few months ago, I had a heart attack. I’m 42 and in relatively good health. And I meditate! This isn’t supposed to happen to people like me. Well, it did and I’m learning how to be with that fact day by day. Statistically speaking, I will have another heart attack sometime in the next 5 years. Now I have that thought in my head . . . Every. Day.
One thing that happens after you have a heart attack is that you’re suddenly very aware of your heartbeat. Every little pain, flutter, or irregularity in your chest feels like a potential threat. It’s scary and the thoughts that accompany that fear create more stress, which is not optimal for a heart patient. In this case, negative thoughts could literally kill me. Death is one thing I’d like to avoid. But I know from past experience that whatever I do to avoid or struggle with negative thinking seems to have the opposite effect. It’s like falling into quicksand. The more you struggle with it, the more you get sucked in (or so I’ve heard). So how can I remain at ease when the ultimate threat is presenting itself? Let it go. If that seems pithy or trite, I don’t blame you. I knew that little nugget of wisdom already. I'd been practicing mindfulness for nine years prior to having this heart attack. But when your life is threatened every day, it’s easy to scoff at. It’s like, “Live in the moment.” OK, yeah. Right. Got it. But this moment sucks. Just “let it go.” Right. Usually, when you hear “let it go,” you think that it’s supposed to go away. Like a balloon. So, when it doesn’t go away, you feel dumb. It’s still there. That didn’t work. Remember that anything you do in the service of avoiding or struggling with an unwanted experience only serves to keep it there. So, if your expectation is to rid yourself of that fearful thought, it isn’t going to work. It’s going to backfire. It’s more like, let go of your grip of it. The problem with thoughts is not their content. It’s how we’re holding them. Imagine if you had to hold a cactus (an unlikely scenario, but just go with it). You wouldn’t grip it tightly, would you? No, it you’d probably hold it as lightly as possible. But that’s what we tend to do when we have scary thoughts. We grip them so tightly that we injure ourselves. “I’m dying!” What happens when you grip that thought with all your might? More fear, more stress, maybe an eventual self-fulfilling prophecy. We usually don’t notice that we’re gripping a thought that strongly until we feel the pain of it. That’s a reasonable place to start. Slowly and deliberately, begin to loosen your grip. Relax your hand and just let that thought sit there in the palm of your open hand. Observe it. I imagine it’s a different experience watching sharks in a documentary than it is to experience one from an inflatable life raft in the open sea. We have a different relationship with sharks on TV than the ones up close and personal. In the same way a shark is not life threatening when it’s on TV, a thought is not life threatening when you can “see it” rather than gripping it. Even if that thought represents death itself. The thought “I’m dying” is exactly as life threatening as the thought “The sky is really blue today.” It doesn’t matter what it says. A thought is a thought. It’s information. Data. Sometimes it’s “true.” Death is a fact, in fact. But as a thought, it’s just a thought. “Death” cannot kill me. The goal isn’t to stop thinking negative thoughts. Ironically, the only way to avoid thoughts of death . . . is to die. If that’s the choice, I’ll take negative thoughts, please. Every time. We don’t know how much time we have left. So it’s better to focus on how we intend to live with negative thoughts, because they’re here now, along with your breath, your heartbeat, your love, your life.