When Thoughts Cause Stress: Steps on the Path to Mindfulness

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll

The notion that how we feel is directly caused by events around us, or directly involving us, is a scourge of our modern times. To believe that the external world and its perceived relationship to us is the major determinative factor in how we feel (“I can’t believe he/she said that to me—that’s so outrageous!”) is disempowering and self-destructive.

We impose our “shoulds” on what we perceive as “the world out there,” and then when it fails to live up to our arbitrary and abstract standards, we pout, mope, grumble, and complain that it “should” have been different.

Rather than tweaking our perception, we demand that the thing we perceive should tweak itself!

When people fail to conform to our whimsy, we often fall into yet another error avoided by the mindful: we replay upsetting events (events that we perceived as upsetting) and our emotional responses to them in our heads over and over, further upsetting ourselves.

Many people like to imagine how they would have responded differently to an unpleasant scenario—perhaps with some pithy and scathing repartee to put the aggressor in their place, or some supremely composed nonchalance in the face of adversity.

But these mental rehashings and rehearsals have various detrimental effects. For one, they further worsen your state of mind, which, if sustained, simply serves to draw more people and events to you that correspond to your bad mood.

The remedy?

First, we need to drop our “shoulds” in the moment, adopt a more “go with the flow” mindset, and accept that there will always be things that crop up that we won’t necessarily be overjoyed about.

Believe that that is okay (and that it may ultimately be in your best interest), and, as Niebuhr said, try to cultivate the serenity to accept the things you cannot change.

Next, we need to learn not to RE-act unconsciously to stimuli, rehashing our established habitual response to some perceived stressor. (“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me again!”)

Instead, we need to develop a modicum of detachment and learn to observe what is occurring without identifying with it. That goes for both external processes and internal thought processes.

People forget that no matter what happens, there is always a multitude of angles to view it from, all of them complimentary. Too easily do we adopt the idea that our own personal viewing angle trumps any other.

It can be an extremely useful and healing exercise to step into another person’s shoes and try to humble oneself enough to see things from their perspective.

If it’s too late for you to try multi-angle viewing in the moment because you’ve already gotten swept away on a wave of emotion, all is not lost. You can still step back from your emotions—they are not you.

Any thought or feeling we can observe (which is all of them) must be something less than the totality of who and what we are. We can train ourselves out of unconscious identification with our transient thoughts and feelings, thus, becoming the master, making emotion the servant.

Given the realization that we have a choice between neutrality, humor, indignation, sadness, pain, anger, or even joy, in virtually any given circumstance, why would anyone consciously choose anything other than enjoyable psychological assessments of and responses to events—or at the very least, relatively peaceful or neutral ones?

And yet, we do—all the time. Through effort, however, we can cultivate the mindfulness that allows us to recognize in the moment that we are the ones who choose our thoughts and feelings, no one else.

I can think of an unfortunate time when I squandered the present moment as a result of a lack of perspective and slavery to “should.” What followed were counter-productive, anguish-producing mental replays.

On the way home from a day at Sydney University, sometime in 2002, if I recall correctly, I boarded my usual bus home from the train station. Waiting for the driver to set us, his human cargo in motion, I was eventually joined on the seat by a businessman garbed in suit and tie with accompanying briefcase.

But he didn’t just sit next to me; he sat almost on top of me, needlessly squashing me up against the window—an aggressive gesture, which I passively (and regrettably) accommodated. Apparently Mr. Briefcase was having a bad day.

Huddled silently and awkwardly against the interior wall of the bus for the duration of the trip, I made no indication of my dissatisfaction with the seating arrangement.

Instead I waited until my bus stop was not far away before reaching up to press the “stop” button. At that point I politely said, “Excuse me” and made it quite plain that I intended to alight—standard bus etiquette all in all.

Well, apparently my new friend found my social etiquette somewhat lacking—and little did I know that it was his stop too.

So, to my complete amazement, as I dismounted the communal “carriage” and began the short leg of the journey home on foot, I was shocked and baffled to hear a stream of profanity and insults being directed at my back from some distance away.

Yes, Mr. Briefcase was having a real bad day—and evidently was looking to take it out on me!

I don’t remember most of what was said as we exchanged barbs while walking in near-opposite directions, although I do recall becoming highly offended and indignant at this completely unprovoked attack.

I was outraged—fuming—and my biggest mistake was that I was certain it was all his fault that I felt this way.

I neglected to notice that I didn’t need to be offended; that I had a choice as to how I could respond; that he was probably going through some major personal difficulties and wasn’t coping very well—and so on.

In fact, I stayed outraged for at least a week after it. How dare he!? My blood boiled and I made all the classic mistakes. I replayed the event in my mind endlessly for days afterward. I judged and labelled Mr. Briefcase and his behavior according to all my “shoulds.”

I imagined future scenarios where I might have a chance to confront him again; only I would stay calm, and calculatingly best him verbally, putting him in his place. My thinking was compulsive and totally out of control.

My emotions had enslaved me and I was at their mercy. I was unwittingly practicing the classic victim mentality.

In hindsight, my total lack of self-control and mastery over my thought patterns is amusing—hilarious even!

My complete lack of perspective caused me to not only fail to see the humor embedded in this ludicrous situation, in which a fully grown middle-aged man clad in business attire and clutching a snazzy looking briefcase acted like a petulant two-year-old toward me; but it also caused me to torture myself for days afterward by replaying the “injustice” of it all in my head.

What a masochist!

If finding the lighter side of adversity or confrontation comes to you with as much difficulty as it did for me during this incident, then try to cultivate the habit of observing, and then observing yourself observing.

You’ll be amazed at the number of cognitive options you see at your disposal that would go completely unnoticed if you were identifying with your perceptions, beliefs, and judgements, and the feelings flowing from them.

No identification, no suffering. From an “observer space” you can consciously choose what to think and feel—you have options. Identification, on the other hand, leads to transient reactive emotion (often some form of pain).

In identification mode, you can be upset and offended and will judge and label instead of observing.

This often leads to festering resentment, and the aforementioned mental replays of an upsetting incident ad nauseum, thus allowing the “culprit” to live rent-free in your mind. (“I’m not going to let them get away with that!”)

However, once a troubling or challenging event has passed, if there are still lingering thoughts and replays running in my mind, I find it a useful strategy to get honest with myself and ask: “Who is thinking my thoughts? Who creates my emotions?”

Obviously, the answer is me, so, therefore, I am the one who is now causing myself the grief. Whoops.

Knowing all of this, I can acknowledge that I—and I alone—get to choose what I believe and think, and therefore how I feel.

Observing that is a powerful thing!

Photo by mindfulness

About Brendan Murphy

Brendan D. Murphy is a rising Australian author, musician & contributing writer for several consciousness-based magazines & websites. His forthcoming science-meets-metaphysics non-fiction epic The Grand Illusion: A Synthesis of Science and Spirituality (Vol’s 1 & 2) is due in mid-to late 2012. Visit him on Facebook. 

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  • Mickey baughcum

    Very informative, I am bad about letting people rule my emotions, this helps…

  • JamesSimon

    This was very helpful to me today. I unfortunately do this all the time. Thank you so much.

  • Reynaldo

    Awsome!  Thank you! 

  • Lv2terp

    FANTASTIC blog post, thank you for your wisdom and story!!! 🙂

  • Jedidad

    This is a fantastic post.  This is one area in which I know I need a lot of work in and this post is quite helpful.  Thank you.  I will meditate on this alot I am sure.

  • Jennifer Wyche

    Awesome post!

  • Laura

    Brendan, Thanks for your beautiful thoughts. Easy to feel we are all alone on our ‘journey’ but by you sharing your story makes me realize (and remember) our true purpose for being on the planet – learning. It is so hard sometimes. I find myself going through the same problems, again and again, asking myself “What lesson didn’t I understand?” I will try to be more of an observer – and less of an identifier. Thanks for that insight. 

    I believe that by each of us sharing our ‘perceptions’ we learn and HELP one another on our path. I love to compare everything to nature, if you are feeling pretty bad, depressed or sorry for yourself, remember – this too shall pass. Look up at the sky, the weather. When it rains it rains, then it is over. Then the sun comes out. Sometimes simplicity is the best answer for things we make complicated.

  • My dad always used to tell me, “You’re in charge of you, and only you, not anybody else.” Being a victim removes oneself from a position of being in charge. Now I tell myself, whenever I’m upset, “Happy is a choice. I’m in charge of me, and I choose to be happy.” It doesn’t always immediately work, but it does definitely help with the instant replays, & sometimes I’m even lucky enough to catch myself in the act & change course. 

  • Well, as anyone who visits this site regularly knows, Tiny Buddha has the magical power of always talking about what’s going on in our lives 🙂 

    I was talking today to a friend about a mutual friend and some issues I’ve had with her recently. I have admitted to myself that I’ve given her the power of controlling my state of mind and my mood. She can take me very high and give me so much joy and suddenly drop me. 

    I have always been a very lonely person and having her as part of my life has meant a lot to me. That loneliness of course has caused me to be very inexperienced in social and matters of friendship.

    When she drops me I fall like a brick cause I still don’t know how to fly.

    So this post reminds me that I have to hold the reins of my life and to take control of my reactions. I cannot allow her or anyone to influence my mood in such a strong way. I need to grow wings and learn how to fly.  When she wants to go high we can fly together, maybe this way we can go even higher.

    Thanks for the post, it helped a lot

  • Soniyasa

    Amazing post!! Thank you. I have been observing … Still 30% of my emotions are taking over me. That is actually an improvement from 100%:)

  • Thank you all for your kind words. I’m really glad to know that this humble little piece has been of some service to you. 8)

  • Classic post mate.

  • A friend of mine once told me, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” He was absolutely right. However, putting that principle into practice was another story.

    For many years, I struggled with feelings of anger and hurt over things that other people said and did to me. To make things worse, I felt justified in my emotions. After all, hurtful words or behavior are difficult to defend, though I’m sure the other person doesn’t seem to have much difficulty. As Gandhi once said, “The problem with seeking an eye for an eye is that eventually we’ll all be blind.”

    In time, I began to realize that the reason I was hurt so easily was because I had a fragile ego. And the way to overcome this over-sensitivity was through spiritual growth—in my case, through mindfulness meditation.

    After meditating consistently for some time, I’ve become much more stable emotionally. Most things don’t bother me anymore—not even hurtful words, or rude drivers. It’s a wonderful place to be. This is why I’ve become so dedicated to teaching others how to meditate, so they too can find freedom from the bondage of self.

    Charles A. Francis
    The Mindfulness Meditation Institute

  • Eredyns

    I need this tattooed on my palm so I can read it 5000x a day

  • “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll
    This frase does comments everything.It’s very easy to understand , but very difficult to practice….
    Thank you for this nice article….

  • I like the way you explained about “When Thoughts Cause
    Stress: Steps on the Path to Mindfulness.” I want to show
    gratitude for writing such a good feature article, really will support me out
    in frequent ways…

  • Hello Brendan

    Thanks for your fine article. I have referenced it in my blog post “Build Resilience to Fight Stress”

    Cheers, Carol Ann