Hello, and welcome.
This page contains information and videos about two stress-busting techniques, plus information on how to combat negative thinking.
If you are undergoing medical treatment for any illness, or if you feel that these techniques might harm you, please check with a qualified medical professional before doing these exercises. Please also note that this page does not provide medical advice, so if you have any queries about your health, please seek advice from a qualified medical professional.
All of the techniques require regular practice, but the good news is that all of them can be practised when you are actually experiencing stress, anxiety or negative thinking – you don’t need to find extra time for practice.
(The exception to this could be the ‘body scan’, where you might need to schedule 5 -6 actual practice sessions so that you become quick at using it when you need it. After that, you can use and practice it when you are feeling anxious or stressed.)
I hope you find these techniques useful. I’m interested in feedback, so please feel free to text me on 0403 932311 or email on email@example.com to let me know how you are progressing, and if you have any questions.
Square breathing (box breathing) is a simple and effective technique that resets breathing to its natural rhythm. It is easy to learn (takes around 2 minutes to learn), It is also invisible, so it can be used anywhere – in meetings at work, while talking to your boss, or to your children.
It is used by people in stressful jobs such as firefighters, police, medical staff and defence force personnel when they are in stressful situations. It calms the mind and allows them to use their higher brain functions (concentration, critical thinking, decision-making, judgement, etc.) rather than remaining in flight or fight mode.
It is very useful for relieving anxiety, stress, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, insomnia and panic disorders.
Slow, deep breathing influences the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and part of the ANS controls the fight or flight response.
Slowing our breathing rate allows carbon dioxide to build up in the blood, which stimulate the ANS to calm our mind and body. It also decreases the production of stress hormones in our body, and some research has shown it decreases inflammation. It can also improve attention, as it calms our mind.
Relaxation ‘body scan’
The body can react to anxiety and stress as it it is a physical threat. As part of the flight or flight response which prepares us to fight or run away, the body can therefore react to stress and anxiety by creating muscle tension. This can lead to pain, e.g. in the jaw, neck, head, shoulders, and back. It can also leave people feeling tired due to the ongoing effort of maintaining the tension in the muscles.
Relaxation also helps to slow the breathing, and enables deeper breathing. This influences the autonomic nervous system as described in the section above on square breathing, so can slow heart rate
The ‘body scan’ technique is described in the video below, and involves relaxing each part of your body starting from the feet and gradually working up to the head. At the point where you are relaxing your chest muscles, you can also slow your breathing, and start to breathe more deeply to help the relaxation.
Many people at some time or other have negative thoughts.
But they bother some of us much more than others. These people gradually start to think about the world and / or themselves with a negative focus.
Thoughts can have a direct link to feelings, and negative thoughts can make us feel unhappy, worthless, etc., especially when we can fall into the habit of thinking negatively.
These thoughts can even be distorted, making them even more unhelpful:-
- All-or-nothing thinking – black-and-white thinking – there is no grey, e.g. I lost my temper with my children last night, so I am no good as a parent (even though you are generally very loving towards them).
- Overgeneralisation – you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, e.g., if you burn a steak while cooking it, you assume that you will never be able to cook meat.
- Mental filter – one (negative) part of the picture is examined to the exclusion of the larger (positive) part, like the drop of ink that discolours the entire beaker of water, e.g., if you undercook a part of a meal, you focus on this issue, forgetting that you cooked the rest of it perfectly.
- Dismissing the positive – dismissing or ignoring any positive comment/achievement/compliment, e.g. saying “oh – this old thing – I’ve had it for years” when someone compliments you on your clothes.
- Magnification (catastrophising) – this is making small things much larger that they deserve, (e.g. I spilt the wine – that has completely ruined the evening”)
- Minimisation – this is making facts much smaller than they are in reality (e.g. the fact that I have worked my way through university and received good grades doesn’t mean a lot)
- Emotional reasoning – thinking that negative emotional states legitimately reflect reality. For example – “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Feelings can be coloured by past events (e.g. I just feel that my wife’s relatives do not like me)
- ‘Should’ statements – thinking in terms of should, must, ought imposes a view about the way the world in which may not tie with reality, and which induces emotional unhappiness, resentment and guilt (e.g. I should make a home-cooked meal for my family every evening)
- Labeling and mislabeling – this involves describing actions or events in an over the top, dramatic, emotionally coloured way, (e.g. he is a terrible Father as he did not play football with his children).
- Personalisation – this involves attributing blame to yourself for an event where the responsibility is not fully yours, only partly yours or not yours at all, (e.g. if someone forgets to do something, and you feel guilty for not reminding them)
- Jumping to conclusions – this involves ‘mind reading’ and ‘predicting the future’ – you decide without any evidence that someone is thinking negatively about you (e.g. my manager must think I delivered the presentation very badly), or you predict the future with little evidence for the prediction (e.g. I will not enjoy the party tonight).
The good news is…..
These 11 patterns of cognitive distortions (faulty thinking) are just that – patterns or habits. Subsequently, they can be broken down over time through awareness and ongoing practice.
Your two minds
Unhelpful, negative thoughts can be fleeting, and difficult to “catch”, but we can improve our ability to detect and deal with them with practice.
If you close your eyes, and try to empty your mind, you will probably find that – after a while – thoughts start coming into your mind.
But you are simultaneously involved in the thoughts, but also aware that you are thinking the thoughts! Who or what is observing your mind thinking about those thoughts?
In Zen, and in some forms of therapy, we are considered to have two minds – the “Thinking Mind” and the “Observing Mind.” What happens is that the Thinking Mind is busy ‘dashing around’ from one thought to another, and this is observed by the Observing Mind.
You can use your Observing Mind to become aware of the cognitive distortions when you are thinking in an unhelpful way. Once you are aware of the distorted ways of thinking, it’s easier to recognise when you are thinking like that, and challenge yourself. It gets even easier with practice, so don’t worry if a few ‘cognitive distortions’ slip through without being noticed at first.
Link between feelings and thoughts
Often the first sign of negative thinking is feeling “down” or “worried” in general:-
- You might become aware that you are feeling worried
- You can then realise what you are thinking about is causing the worry – e.g. “I’ve got a meeting tomorrow with my boss about the department performance last month. She won’t be happy with the decrease in the amount of work done.”
- One of the best ways to counteract this is come up with one or more alternative, more positive (but realistic) thoughts, e.g. “I can tell her that two staff were sick and we were unable to get replacements. Given the number of staff that were working, we each did more work than normal.”
- These alternative thoughts should lead to more positive feelings, e.g. in the example above maybe still a bit of concern (the boss can still be annoyed), but also confidence in explaining the reasons for decrease in work completed.
Noticing (and catching) unhelpful negative thoughts does become easier with practice. When you are feeling “down” and are not sure why, pause and consider what you’re thinking, and go though the above process. It should help. By encouraging you to think of the reasons for feeling worried or “down”, it could even generate ideas for resolving the original situation.
Training your Observing and Thinking Mind
The following practice (called witnessing) can make it easier to catch these unhelpful thinking patterns.
(Please check with a medical professional before doing this exercise if you have a psychotic illness, or feel that it might harm you in any other way)
- Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable, and close your eyes
- Let your mind relax, and do not think of anything in particular
- If / when thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them and then let them go (It is often easier to let them go once they are acknowledged, as you are not trying to ignore them)
- Once you have practice in acknowledging the thoughts and letting them go, you can also notice if they are positive or negative before letting them go – I.e. say to yourself “this is a positive thought about my cooking” or “this is a negative thought about my boss”.
- This practice in acknowledgement and identification of thoughts then makes it easier to identify unhelpful thoughts when they occur during the day.
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