The Addiction No One Is Thinking About

columboWhen I was younger, one of my favorite activities was simply to think.

I remember laying on my back, on the floor in my room and gazing out the window, just thinking. I would think about my friends, about school, about books I had read…really anything. I imagined future scenarios, and reminisced about past ones. Lost in daydreams, I never would have thought that I was fostering an addiction.

I was a thinking addict.

Most of us are, in fact, addicted to our thoughts. Indeed, this is not an accident, but rather a result of neurological efficiency. Each thought, just like every action we take, corresponds to neurologic activity in our brains. And if there is one thing our brains are especially good at, it’s being efficient. This is ultimately the process of learning, although it may sound strange for me to tell you that you actually had to learn to think. But you did. What you learned to think about as a child and young adult is largely driving your thoughts today. Spend just five minutes observing your mind at work to find out for yourself. It’s an illuminating experience to catch our thoughts, and a forever life-changing one to start noticing our inner dialogue.

While it seems that thinking is rather harmless (after all, you might think about how much you would like to tell off your boss, but you wouldn’t actually do it for fear of losing your job), it actually corresponds to very real changes in your brain. Thoughts generate electric impulses in neurons, that then communicate with other neurons via synapses. So while you don’t actually carry out a certain action with your body based on every thought, you are “acting” on a neuro-chemical level.

Our thoughts aren’t harmless, ephemeral, inconsequential things – we are constantly being affected by them, whether we like it or not.

The fundamental effects of thoughts on our brains cannot be denied. And just the way you develop muscle memory when you are learning a new sport, for example, you develop the same type of memory when it comes to repetitive thoughts. If any of your thoughts are distressing to you, then repeatedly thinking them won’t serve you in any way. What are some of your most common thoughts? Maybe you think that no one will find you attractive because you are overweight. Or that there’s no way you would be selected for the promotion at work because you aren’t smart enough. Repetitive thoughts based in insecurity and self-criticism quickly become addictive, and when they do, are anything but harmless.

But what about thoughts that aren’t distressing? Fantasizing about hoped-for future scenarios, or extended trips down memory lane, can be just as addictive as our self-critical thoughts. While we do need to think in order to live, we spend way too much time everywhere else other than the present moment. The harm with these types of thoughts is that we lose our cognitive ability to focus and pay attention. The more likely your mind is to wander to other realms, the less likely you are to notice what is happening around you right now. And since “right now” is the only moment that exists, learning to pay attention to it will serve you invaluably compared to repetitive thinking about the past or future.

The first step for any addict is to become aware of the addiction. So if you need to stage an intervention for yourself, do it! But do it lovingly. And once you are aware of your addictive thinking, check yourself into rehab. While I wish there really did exist a rehabilitation center for addictive thinking (I’m imagining gardens, yoga, plenty of sleep and laughter), the only rehab you need is a daily mindfulness practice. And I do mean daily. Consistency is the key when recovering from any type of addiction. You want to replace the old bad habit, with the new good one. Even five minutes a day can radically transform your thought patterns, and therefore, your actual neurologic wiring.

Five minutes a day, sitting in stillness, breathing easily while you observe your thoughts with love.

There’s no better cure than that.

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