Changing the Conversation in Your Mind

Last week, I was listening to TED Talks while cleaning my oven for the first time ever, and one of the talks was about fixing a broken heart. The speaker focused on heartbreak, but I think the ideas behind his talk could apply to any unwelcome thoughts. I had the chance to put the theory to use with my son this week.

The Technique
The speaker, Guy Winch, covered a few areas, but I'm going to focus on my main takeaway from his talk. And that was this ... when you dwell on a thought and have it on repeat in your mind, the neural pathway for that thought gets well-traveled. As a result, it becomes easier and easier to go down that path and harder to shift your thoughts in a different direction.

You can think of your mind as a field of grass and the first thought as one person making their way through the field. Once they pass, the grass will probably fluff back up and if no one else comes, soon enough you won't be able to tell where they walked. But, if someone else arrives moments later and follows the same path because they can see the disturbed grass, that path gets more stomped down. And if a few minutes after that, another person arrives, they will likely take the same path because it's become even more obvious. With each subsequent person, the path gets more deeply entrenched, until all the grass is trampled and it becomes a dirt path. When that happens, it becomes much less likely that the next person will go a different way.

The following is some combination of what I've learned from meditation, The Power of Habit, and The Happiness Advantage. One way to tackle unwelcome thoughts is to divert your mind to something else when they first appear. It helps to have a plan prepared so that when the thought pops up, you're not trying to deal with it on the fly. And while you're at it, might as well divert your mind to something funny or positive, like a happy memory.

"I Miss Daddy"
My husband travels semi-frequently for work and is gone for 4-5 days at a time. Our son gets pretty worked up when he leaves. There's usually 15 minutes of sobbing when my husband's car pulls away, and a lot of moping around during the week. In the past, I have let my son get his feelings out and reassured him that daddy would be home in a few days, but he would continue to be sad.

Putting Theory into Practice
Before my husband left for his work trip this time, we watched a bit of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. One part my son found to be super hilarious was when Nearly Headless Nick flipped his head sideways and it was hanging off his neck. So the first time my son started getting teary-eyed and saying he missed his daddy, I said that I knew he did and reminded him that his dad would be home on Friday. Then I brought up the Nearly Headless Nick scene and suggested he think about that instead. We talked about the scene and had a good laugh, and to my surprise, it worked!

Over the next few days, any time he started thinking about his dad, I acknowledged his feeling and noted that his dad would be home soon. Then I would talk about Nearly Headless Nick and my son's mood would immediately shift in a positive direction. By the fourth day, he was redirecting his thoughts himself. I was really astonished, and I think the point is, we were recognizing his thought and not repressing it or ignoring it. But at the same time, we didn't dwell on it, and it really worked.

In Conclusion
I'm grateful for the fortunate timing of listening to the podcast so that a few days later, when I needed it, I could put the ideas into practice. This approach has reduced the amount of time my son has spent feeling sad about his dad being away to almost zero time at all. Even though being sad is a part of life and I do think it's important for my kids to learn how to cope with sad feelings, I think that's different than thinking about things that make them sad over and over again. This success has encouraged me to apply this technique to my own thoughts and maybe you will find it helpful as well.


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