Ever since I was young, my mind has often been jumping to extreme scenarios. I could be having a conversation with a random person, and suddenly my mind would bring forth a severe thought like, “I wonder what would happened if I just punched this person in the throat? I wonder how they would react?”
Of course, I would not act upon this random thought; nor did I intentionally call it forth. I have no hostility toward this person, nor am I a violent person. This was something the mind thought on its own without my contribution.
The mind will often present us with extreme thoughts when faced with the unknown.
When the boss calls you into his office unexpectedly, the mind’s first involuntary thought will often be a fear of termination regardless of how stellar a person’s work performance may be. When hearing of an accident, the mind may immediately cast thoughts of family or friends and the possibility that they were impacted. These extreme thoughts are a form of anxiety.
In the first example, the anxiety would occur in follow up thoughts of, “I can’t believe I just thought this. This isn’t right. What is wrong with me?” but in the other examples the anxiety exists in worrying not about our mind, but in the worrying of external circumstances.
Anxiety, along with other mental illnesses, does not indicate that something is wrong with a person, but rather demonstrates a state that the mind is currently in – a state that it was allowed to reach (mostly due to our own negligence in not monitoring and caring for it). An affliction of the ego – the uncontrolled thinking mind – where the imagination is being used against you for harm.
These extreme thoughts often leave us feeling bad. Recently, I learned that Progressive (insurance company) was going to total my car due to contaminants in the flood water (oil from holding tanks at the Ford dealership a block away coated all the water in this area with oil – making the car a “health hazard”) instead of allowing me to dry it out and change the carpeting as I originally planned (the car still runs). As soon as I was told this, my mind whispered, “You have this car as collateral for a loan. If they don’t give you enough to pay off the loan, you’ll be immediately responsible for the remainder of the loan since you don’t have additional collateral. You’ll be out of a car and even further in debt.”
This thought immediately caused my heart to sink, a sour feeling to take hold in my stomach, and tension to tighten my chest – all warning signs from my body that what my mind was thinking was polluting me. These extreme, worst-case-scenario thoughts were not the only possible outcome, but my mind was presenting them to me as though they were.
Later, when I was able to think through the situation logically, I began to see the other possibilities. I was able to rationally calm myself, and remind myself that I do not know the outcome and I cannot know it in advance – no matter how well I think I can conjecture. Allowing these extreme thoughts to dominate would continue this sickening feeling inside me.
Why allow myself to feel bad just to later (possibly) be relieved when the worst does not come to pass? And what if the worst did come to pass? Would I have benefited from feeling terrible in the interim? No, not at all. There is no benefit to feeling crumby.
So how do we cease these extreme and often involuntary thoughts? We simply stop them. Now, don’t think that this stoppage needs to be constant because it does not. You only need to stop these thoughts in the moment that you realize you are having them. Once you realize you are ruminating on an extreme thought, tell yourself to stop. Say something along the lines of, “Hey, mind, I am in charge here. I noticed you brought up this extreme thought that is making me feel worse. It doesn’t make me bad that these thoughts are appearing. It is not wrong that my mind is gravitating towards these thoughts. But I am choosing to stop this thought right here, and continue with a better one.” Minutes later when you notice you are back to the same thought, it does not mean you have failed. It just means this thought is an extremely powerful one. Rejoice that you are able to recognize the falseness of this thought. All you have to do is stop, again. Again and again and again – as often as needed.
These extreme thoughts could be the result of extreme memories that are being involuntarily recalled into the mind. And extreme thoughts do not have to be negative. Have you ever had amazing extremely positive thoughts that left you so high and giddy, only to later experience sudden disillusionment when what you imagined didn’t come to pass, leaving you feeling terrible? Those extreme thoughts must also be stopped, even though they make you feel good, because they are also a product of the mind and are not based in reality. For, bad or good, we cannot know the outcome until it occurs, so we must not bask in artificial happiness or sadness. We can learn to harness the good feelings without thoughts fuelled by imagination but that is a topic for another time.
Just remember – you are not your mind and your mind is not you. You are the user of the mind.
The mind will try to control you with involuntary thoughts that make you feel one way or another. You always have a choice in these thoughts. As humans, there will be conditions and circumstances that will leave us under the control of the mind because life does not wait for us to adjust and fully reconcile one happening before throwing another at us.
When we feel stressed and overwhelmed, these are tell tale signs that we are under the control of the unconscious mind. For all that is needed to stop this stress is us taking control over our minds and changing the way we feel about our circumstances.
Self created suffering is extremely personal in nature. What is traumatic for one person, may not be traumatic for another.
A person could experience more trauma over an attempted nonviolent robbery than another person who survived a horrific and violent attack simply because of how different the current conditions of their mind were. That is why it makes little sense to judge how another person is handling a set of circumstances based on the recollection of how we have handled similar (or worse) circumstances. We never know the condition of a person’s mind but we can learn the condition of our own mind. We can be diligent and observe when we are likely to gravitate towards extreme thoughts. We can train ourselves to catch the mind the moment these thoughts arise, so we can stop them and not allow them to take over.
And most of all, when we wake up after days of unconscious worry/anxiety/extreme thoughts/illusion, we must not be upset with ourselves. We must resist the temptation of being disappointed in ourselves, for this is just a trick of the ego – a trick to exchanging a bad feeling of an extreme thought into a bad feeling of disappointment in ourselves. And even when we slip and feel that personal disappointment, as I was feeling last night after catching myself wallowing in self pity over my external circumstances, we must not beat ourselves up even more. We must stop the cycle of self abuse in its tracks. We must treat it like the extreme thought it is, end it, and instead extend some compassion to ourselves.