Mind-wandering, worry and negative thinking

by Ezra Hewing | 12 Aug 2022

Mind-wandering: Where does your imagination take you?

A recent study has shown that when our minds begin to wander, we can often drift into worrying and negative thinking. Worrying is a misuse of the imagination. Too much negative daydreaming (mind-wandering) can increase the amount of dreaming we do when asleep, and cause us to wake up exhausted and low in mood the next day.

Worry is a cloud which rains destruction.

Idries Shah

Avoiding worry and negative thinking is easier said than done, especially if we are feeling anxious or stressed about unmet emotional needs. So, what can we do to keep mind-wandering healthy? Here are some suggestions which might help.

Tuning into your memory bank

Whenever we remember something, we are using our imagination to recall a memory. A useful tip is to keep a collection of positive memories to tune into when we find our mind wandering. These might be memories of a relaxing time spent in the park. Or having a soak in the bath. Or doing something creative, like painting or writing a poem. We can might think of these memories as our personal film collection, which we can choose to watch in our imagination.

Choose your challenge

Imagination is a resource which helps us to meet our emotional needs by planning ahead, solving problems, and imagining how other people might feel. Our imagination always needs a challenge to work on. A Middle Eastern proverb tells us, ‘if you have no problems, buy a goat.’ Apparently, goats will cause you lots of problems by eating everything you own…

So, if we have hobbies which challenge us to think, or we have a day out or a birthday party to plan, it gives our imagination a healthy problem to solve.

Your observing self

Another resource which involves the imagination is the observing self. This is our sense of awareness, which allows us to watch our feelings and thoughts as they come and go. It’s much easier to do this when we are relaxed – strong emotions have the power to lock our attention. So a good tip is to practice 7/11 breathing while our mind wanders, so we can observe our thoughts and feelings while we choose to let them go.  

Rehearsing the future

We can also use our imagination to rehearse the future. If we are preparing for an interview, or trying to get motivated to be more physically active, we might imagine ourselves doing these things with confidence and with a positive outcome. Perhaps we will imagine how good we will feel once we start walking, stretching, or swimming. And the more we use our imagination for rehearsing positive outcomes, the easier it becomes.

To help stay well, find out more about your physical and emotional needs and innate resources.

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind and a Human Givens Therapist. Since joining Suffolk Mind in 2009, he has grown our busy workplace wellbeing service, training frontline mental health workers, doctors, nurses, substance abuse workers, members of the emergency services and heads of organisations, amongst others, in how best to understand and support emotionally healthy workplaces. He holds an MSc in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health from the internationally renowned Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College, London, where he researched REM sleep and mental ill health, with a focus on the symptoms of schizophrenia.

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