Some habitual ways of thinking can keep us stuck in a negative loop. Cultivating awareness of these “mind traps” can help you shift your attention.
By Elisha Goldstein
Marco Saracco/Adobe Stock
There’s a funny print cartoon that shows a man and woman sitting on the couch staring at a TV screen, and the caption reads, “It’s 12 o’clock, do you know where your mind is?”
As time goes on and we grow from children to adolescents to adults, for many of us, somewhere along the way life begins to become routine. Day in and day out, whether we’re walking, driving, talking, eating, going to the grocery store, or spending time with our families, our minds get kicked into autopilot and continue to develop their habitual ways of thinking, interpreting, expecting, and relating to other people.
However, these habits also include habits of the mind that can keep us stuck in stress, anxiety, depression, or even addictive behaviors. Here are a few habits of the mind and a mindfulness practice to help you break out of autopilot and gain more control over your life.
Three Common Habits That Sink Happiness:
- Catastrophizing — If you’re prone to stress and anxiety, you may recognize this habitual mind trap. This is where the mind interprets an event as the worst case scenario. If your heart is beating fast, you may think you’re having a heart attack. If your boss didn’t look at you while walking down the hall, you think you’re going to get fired. You get the picture. This style of thinking will support increased stress, anxiety, and even panic.
- Discounting the positive and exaggerating the negative — The news is wonderful at supporting us with this one. This is where we habitually reject or minimize any positive feedback and magnify the negative. The glass is always half empty. If you catch yourself saying something positive and then saying “but” followed by a negative, you are practicing this. “I got a 95% on this test, but I didn’t get a 100%.” Without awareness, this style of thinking will likely land you in a depressed state.
- Blaming — Be careful of this one. We all do it, pointing the finger at someone else for our woes or point the finger at ourselves for others’ woes. “If my boss wasn’t so hard on me at work, I wouldn’t be so anxious” or “It’s my fault my parents got divorced.” Just check in with yourself after noticing this style of thinking. It doesn’t cultivate any solutions, and just makes you feel stuck, anxious, or depressed.
Cultivating the ability to be more aware of these mind traps will help you break free from them and shift your attention to more effective ways of interacting with life.
For example, if you notice catastrophizing, actually say to yourself “catastrophizing is happening right now,” then bring your attention to your breath for a moment to steady your mind. Next, ask yourself, “what are some other possible reasons why my heart is racing (e.g., I just ran upstairs, I’m nervous)?”
If discounting the positive, come back to the breath, and then switch the “but” to an “and” so at least the positive statement get its equal weight, being more realistic and balanced. If blaming, call it out, say to yourself, “blaming is happening.” Remind yourself that blaming simply isn’t effective for anyone and then come back to your breath to steady your mind and return to the task you were just doing.
This is not an easy process, yet an important one for regaining control from the ineffective thought habits we develop. If we’re not mindful in our daily lives, our minds could just fall into their habitual states to the point we’re on our deathbeds asking, “where did it all go?”
Just check in with yourself during the day, look at the clock and say, “It’s X o’clock, do I know where my mind is?” You may catch yourself in some mind traps and if not, just notice whatever you are doing in the moment. Continue if you still want to be doing that or change if you’d rather be doing something else.
Try to be patient through this process and not judge yourself if you find mind traps arising. Judging yourself as bad or wrong is another mind trap that keeps you stuck. Breathe in, breathe out, and just redirect your focus.
Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (Atria Books, 2015), The Now Effect (Atria Books, 2012), Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler (Atria Books, 2013), and co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger, 2010).
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