A lot of the stress we experience in life is not caused by what is happening, but by the way we react to what is happening.
For example, you might be driving to work and start thinking about the bills you have to pay this month or what the boss is going to say at the morning meeting, or any number of things.
Without you realising it these thoughts will most likely be triggering responses in your body that stimulate the release of chemicals associated with the flight or fight response.
Before you know it you are gripping the steering wheel, and the muscles around your shoulders and neck are tightening.
Thoughts Can Trigger Stress
Because our minds and bodies are connected, our state of mind can influence how we feel, and how we feel can influence how we think. For example if we start worrying about the stress we are feeling, we get more stressed. We can get anxious about feeling anxious. It can become a vicious cycle.
If our thoughts aren't particularly helpful, or if they are causing us unnecessary suffering and/or stress, we need to be able to disengage from them. If we ruminate over a problem or worry about what the future might bring, we are causing ourselves more suffering.
This is what Buddhists call "shooting the arrow twice".
For example if you have a situation that you are worried about, or are experiencing unhappiness (the first arrow) reflect on how you are responding. In some situations there is not a lot we can do to change things, either the damage has been done, or the situation is out of our control.
If we start blaming ourselves or if we let resentment and bitterness build up, we are causing ourselves more suffering (the second arrow).
Becoming Mindful of Thoughts
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to observe our thoughts, and to regard them as just thoughts. They are not necessarily true or false - but they can be a ‘second arrow', so we are mindful of them.
They can also take us away from the present moment. We may be in a beautiful garden but if we are worried about the past, or anxious about the future, we are not really aware of all the beauty around us.
If we allow ourselves to disengage from thinking for a while and experience the smells, the sounds and sights all around us we can become more calm and relaxed. When we are more relaxed we are more able to think clearly.
Learning to Disengage From Unhelpful Thoughts
Learning to disengage from unhelpful thoughts is practiced first in meditation, then in everyday life. Beginners are advised to learn to sit with the breath and sensations in the body before observing thoughts.
During these practices, if thoughts come up, we let them be there, but we don't engage with them. We let them go by like clouds across the sky – just mental states floating by, coming and going. We can always go back to these thoughts when the meditation is finished.
Learning to disengage from non-stressful thoughts in meditation helps us become more skilful at disengaging from more problematic ones when they arise.
Mindfulness of thoughts can be practiced in everyday life, while doing the dishes, washing the car or having a cup of tea, listening to your friend or any other focus that you want to practice with.
The key is to notice when your mind has wandered, acknowledge what you were thinking about, and then gently bring it back to what you were doing when it wandered off. The more you do this the better you get at being able to keep your attention from wandering off with thoughts and the more present you can be with whatever is going on.
When you do need to think about a problem or if you can't let go of worry, set aside some worry time and then pay attention to the worrying thoughts only during this time. Writing down your worries can also help get them out of your head.