Making Friends with the ‘Thought Monsters’

Yesterday one of my clients described her thoughts as ‘monstrous’. She had been having a really tough week and the thoughts her mind was generating felt as though they were tormenting her, frightening her, ruining the happiness she had been feeling and convincing her that she was the most useless unworthy person in the world.

The problem wasn’t that her mind had been creating these ‘thought monsters’. The problem was that she was treating them as though they were real, true and accurate.

One aspect of the NPR approach to anxiety is to recognise thoughts as activity of the mind. People often go through life treating thoughts as if they are true, factual and accurate, when in fact, they are just the mind, presenting our experience of the world to us through the form of words, pictures, sounds, feelings and sensations. Thoughts offer a running commentary of what is going on in the now, what has gone before, and what could happen in the future. They zip around busily, often dishing out opinions, stories, judgements, ideas and viewpoints, sometimes bossing us about, criticising us, delivering cautionary tales and generally getting carried away. That is, until you learn how to work with them.

One of the most common things my clients say to me is ‘I just want these thoughts to shut up’, ‘I hate them, they go round and round and won’t leave me alone’. (all said in an angry despairing voice). I spend quite a lot of time teaching people how to work with their brains, rather than in opposition to them, and when it comes to thoughts, working with rather than in opposition to is essential if you wish to experience peace of mind.

This week one of my new clients told me, every time I feel my heart beating my mind tells me I’m going to die of a heart attack! How long has your mind been telling you that? Months!!! And yet when I said ‘and yet here you are very much alive’…….. We both laughed! ‘so I am’ she realised.

Thoughts are not reality. Thoughts are how the mind represents it’s experience of reality to itself. Thoughts are how we communicate with our internal selves, while we navigate our way through the environment of our world. Our memory of yesterday’s dinner is nothing more than a representation of how that dinner looked, tasted, was created, etc… but is not the dinner itself. It is a representation of the dinner, brought through time, since yesterday, by our thoughts, and yet when we think the thought, we can imagine it, taste it, smell it etc. It’s the same with traumatic memories, they are representations of experiences that we have had in the past, brought through time into our current lives by the process of thought, and when we think of them, we can feel at least some of the original pain and upset from the trauma. However, how we treat the thoughts impacts how we experience them. If we treat them as though they are true, real and accurate, we respond and react to them as if they are happening in reality, when in fact they are not. This is very much the case for people who are experiencing anxiety. The anxious mind tells threatening and cautionary tales (with the positive intention of making us cautious and careful in order to keep us safe), however, when we treat them as if they are the truth, we restrict our lives by adhering to the warnings of the mind. If we want to be free of these ‘thought monsters’ we need to shift our perception of them, and to begin to see them as they truly are.

What makes people respond to ‘thought monsters’ as if they are real, is based on how convincing they appear, a little bit like monsters in films, the more convincing they are, the more afraid we are of them. The naff monsters of old b movies don’t scare us at all because they are so rubbish we don’t take them seriously, we see them as silly and non threatening, yet a cleverly created, lifelike, sinister creature can strike at the heart of our fears and have us hiding behind a pillow, even though on some level, we know both were constructed in a studio for our entertainment.

You can come to see ‘thought monsters’ as activity of the mind constructed by our ability to imagine. The ability to imagine is a really useful tool that helps us to decide things ahead of time, such as where we want to go and what we want to do, but even so, these imaginings are not real, they are just a mental rehearsal. ‘Thought monsters’ are the same, they are mental rehearsal but of a cautionary nature, designed to keep us safe, they offer us ‘what if?’ ways of looking at the world, telling us all the things that might go wrong if we don’t listen to them. It’s really useful to stop and have a good look at these ‘monsters’. Shine a big light on them, see them for what they are. Observe them quietly and without judgement. Be kind to them, whether they are of the b movie naff variety, or the scary realistic variety. Treat them with the same approach, tolerance, compassion, but most of all, a healthy dose of scepticism. Remember, you are not your thoughts, you are the quiet observer watching them. You will soon come to see that not only are they inaccurate, but that most of them are also quite ridiculous. I heard Michael Neill recently in an interview describe thoughts as being like ‘sock puppets’ which I think is fantastic. Imagine ‘Sock puppet thought monsters’, all popping up and giving their opinions. Have a big smile at them, and watch them soften and quieten, as they slink slowly back to the sock drawer where they belong, as you get on with enjoying your day in reality, instead of in your head. :-)

Author's Bio: 

Gill Batty specialises in the treatment of anxiety and panic. She works one to one and in groups in private practise and in the voluntary sector. She works with survivors of childhood sexual abuse and rape using the NPR process to reduce anxiety levels.