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We've all been there, stuck in a cycle of negative thinking that we can't seem to kick. Thought exercises are a simple and no-cost way to break negative thinking patterns and boost your mental health. You'll change how you perceive things and regain control with thought exercises.
They can also help us make our subconscious thoughts go in more productive, helpful directions over time, and they'll eventually cut out those negative thinking patterns entirely. We pulled together a list of the top six thought exercises that improve mental health, and we'll show you how to perform them.
Thought exercises are new ways to think about a given circumstance or experience that can help us get out of a stuck or unhelpful way of thinking. While some thought exercises have been studied extensively by psychological researchers, others are offered by psychologists and clinical mental health counselors because they've been helpful anecdotally for specific types of patients. Thought exercises may be suggested by your therapist, whether they are online or in-person.
It's important to keep in mind that there isn't a one-size-fits-all thought exercise. Feel free to try one of them for a few weeks and see if you like the way they impact your mental health and feelings of well-being. If not, you can try a different one. Thought exercises are meant to be a method of seeing the world differently, not a medical treatment.
What are the benefits of thought exercises for mental health?
Reframing thoughts is one of the building blocks of cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been found effective in many studies.
A go-to thought exercise can help one maintain calm during a stressful moment and continue functioning, staving off a more severe reaction like an anxiety attack.
6 thought exercises that will boost your mental health
Next time you're feeling stressed out, try one of these methods to help combat overwhelming feelings.
The self-observation exercise
Many spiritual traditions include some kind of self-observation or mindfulness exercise, but it is helpful in a completely nonspiritual context as well. When you begin to experience the symptoms you associate with anxiety, you can use this exercise to get curious and learn more about what you're going through. Here's how to do it:
1. When you're feeling anxious and have the opportunity to take a couple minutes to yourself, do so. Get away from others so you won't be interrupted, even if it's just a few minutes.
2. Start noting the way that every element of your body feels. Are you feeling the anxiety in your shoulders, neck, stomach or head? Are you experiencing other symptoms, like fatigue or a headache? Don't judge the feelings, just note them, like you were observing a scientific experiment and needed to catch everything.
3. Then turn your self-observation to your thoughts. What are the specific stressors cycling through your mind? Try to catalog them, rather than letting them overwhelm you. When you've noticed one, let it go, recognizing that you've "heard" it.
4. If you can get to a place of fully focusing on bodily and mental sensations, you may find yourself able to calm down, doing things like releasing the muscles you've discovered are tense or letting thoughts go instead of holding onto them intensely. This may take a few tries.
The act of self-observation can be a way to take your mind off the anxiety and come back to your body. When we're in fight-or-flight mode, the anxiety gets us to safety, but if we are physically safe, this can be a way to evaluate our body and find our baseline again.
Keep a thought record
One of the ways that people better understand their anxiety symptoms is by recording their thoughts. This can be done in a traditional paper journal, but there are other options, especially when it's inconvenient to carry an extra notebook everywhere. The app Thought Diary is a simple interface, letting you write down your mood and any details about it. It also includes other thought exercises, such as practicing gratitude and analyzing a thought.
Reviewing your thought record occasionally can help you draw connections, including things like how sleep, exercise and nutrition impact your anxiety symptoms.
Interrupt anxious thinking
Anxious thinking responds best to being distracted by a different task. These techniques are more about what effectively distracts you and less about a technically "right" method.
Try tensing and relaxing different muscles in your body, focusing on the muscle activity and seeing if it can help you stop thinking anxious thoughts.
Breathing with an intentional count, like four counts in and four counts out.
Loudly saying that you're done thinking this way or verbally speaking affirmations can help get out of one's head and hear a positive voice more clearly.
Choosing a soothing task that is also mentally engaging: word games on your phone, loading a dishwasher, doing a yoga flow or other set routine of stretching can all be effective anxiety interruptions.
Counting backward slowly sometimes works to interrupt the flow of anxiety.
Cognitive defusion exercises are all about getting an outside perspective on our thoughts, or strategies that help us detach and look more clearly at our thoughts. They are used frequently in CBT and other types of cognitive therapy.
Use a silly voice: Some people find it helpful to detach from their thoughts by using a silly voice to say something like, "Oh, you think this is very concerning, do you?" or some other observation about the thought.
Leaves on a stream: Some people use the visualization that their thoughts are floating down a river, coming to them and then going away, as a way to see the thoughts as separate from their core identity.
Label your thoughts: Some people find it helpful to identify "that is an anxious thought" or "this is a fearful thought" as they have the thoughts, helping to take them out of being an assessment of reality and treating them as separate items which don't have to be believed outright.
"Thank you mind": When our minds tell us a warning in the form of an anxious thought, we can offer gratitude to our mind for trying to help us and warn us.
Anxiety sometimes presents as excessive worry that one isn't good enough or has negative traits. These thoughts, when played on a loop, can be demoralizing and can make everyday activities miserable. A way to combat this negative self-talk is to practice self-compassion. While it may seem odd at first, trying to see your current situation the way you'd see it if a good friend was going through it can be a start. Give yourself the kind of comfort you'd give a friend, instead of the harsh critique you often give yourself.
Another self-compassion exercise is to find and focus on a photograph of yourself from childhood. Instead of directing your thoughts toward your adult self, direct them to that child. Recognize that your adult self deserves the same kind of comfort that a child deserves, as you are also still learning, albeit different things.
The worry tree
The worry tree is a tool developed for those who experience compulsive or continual worry to help them make a conscious decision between worrying or doing something else. It is a flowchart graphic that is customizable to the person, but essentially starts by questioning, "what exactly am I worried about?" then "Can I do something about it?" and "Can I do something about it right now?" The tree guides people to let worries go when nothing can be done, to make a clear plan if nothing can be done right now, and to go do something if there is something useful to be done about the worry right now. It can help avoid rumination, where we think the same anxiety-inducing thoughts over and over without relief.
Thought exercises can feel different from our typical ways of thinking, but if you remain curious, you may find your mind changing, experiencing more methods for how to think positively over time. If you find that thought exercises make your anxiety symptoms worse, you may have an ineffective thought exercise for yourself, or your anxiety might respond better to treatment from a psychiatrist or counselor. Talking with a mental health professional is a good idea to get better answers about your specific situation.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.