Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

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The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

19 thoughts on “Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

  1. It’s hard for me to meditate. For me, meditation is like dissociation; thoughts are attached to internal people and their internal world inside. I can easily self-hypnotize. I can easily do the internal family systems thing with my alters now. I can easily “meditate,” but the thoughts are hard to just see as mere thoughts, and the panic in a classroom setting (when they tried to do mindfulness meditation) or in group settings (most often clinical) was largely due to my PTSD – my wanting to be alert and at the ready in case anyone tries to take advantage of me (my thoughts were muffled behind fear of being attacked in such settings). When I’m in individual therapy with a clinician I trust, or when I’m alone, mindfulness meditation is merely dissociation, but sometimes rumination – largely due to being perpetually alone for years and getting so used to it that my best friends are my internalized representations of self – i.e., my alters. For “us” to work together, mindfulness meditation would ask that I get integrated to the point of me thinking instead of avoiding behind alternate personalities within. And at the point of fusion or integration, with each alter, I learn to accept the thoughts and the reasons why they’re there, as well as the external real-life triggers that often bring back those thoughts or, in extreme cases, a return of dissociation – an unraveling of integration to the point of re-fragmentation. Dissociation is tricky in this case because it is like meditation in many ways, but I know all too well that it is an avoidance coping style (albeit automatic and very challenging to tame/manage). Perhaps you might know of some tips for us dissociators, Dr. S??

    Apart from dissociation and meditation, I tend to sleep a lot when I feel defeated – another avoidance style of mine. Given my depression, PTSD, dissociation, and chronic fatigue syndrome, sleeping is an easy means for escape. However, given my insomnia (mostly at night), my sleep (when I do fall asleep) is fragmented – I sleep for an hour or two, wake for about an hour or two, go back to sleep for an hour or two, etc. Sometimes I “nap” for 20 minutes or so and then force myself to stay awake to handle life and myself, but I often make compromises between much-needed routine rest and staying somewhat active because I don’t want to die prematurely or atrophy. There are articles about dead butt syndrome, which I really think I have. I’m somewhat deformed because of my sedentary lifestyle, and exercise makes my CFS/ME worse! Exercise, when I can do it here and there, however, does help relieve some of my stress, ruminating thoughts, self-doubts, etc.

    I have used CBT to combat negative thoughts, but they return with memories, internal alternate personalities, or both. Most of my negative thoughts have been internalized by others in real life – whether it be recent or past. Being judged, bullied, misunderstood, discriminated against, mocked, made fun of, harassed, sexually victimized, exploited, ridiculed, ganged up on (ambushed), belittled, verbally abused, psychologically tortured, and spiritually abused – altogether – make it challenging for me to utilize CBT alone when there are too many present-day reinforcements that knock me back down. I’m a fighter, and I’m resilient, but when judged negatively for my grittiness, perseverance, and resilience by those in power, I cower, go back into my shell, grieve alone (or with internal alternates), and dissociate again. Meditation reinforces my idea of escape, pretending, blacking out, avoidance, and so many things. CBT helps to keep me grounded, but where’s the balance with both?

    I suppose a therapist who understands dissociation really well would be able to assist me in treatment, but it is so hard to find that kind of help. If I could find that kind of assistance in a self-help book or an expensive clinical text book, I’d try to heal myself – as I’ve been trying to do, really, for the past 25+ years, or more.

    I’m willing to try anything to help me be more integrated, healed, and positive! Perhaps I’m doing meditation wrong. Perhaps I need to go through a really good grieving process in order for me to let go of the pain I’ve been so afraid to face – with my many selves inside.

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    • You’ve made a good case for why your situation doesn’t allow, at present, a good platform for mindfulness meditation. Conceptually at least, I suspect that DID/PTSD patients as a whole might well need to achieve integration before the possibility of significant benefit from mindfulness meditation would likely be achieved. Finding a therapist who is skilled with DID/PTSD is possible, however, and I hope you do find such a person.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S. I have always wondered about meditation and dissociation, but it is rarely discussed. Dissociation means different things to different diagnoses and their symptims I think.

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      • Just found an article about mindfulness and dissociation: J Trauma Dissociation. 2019 Jan-Feb;20(1):1-15. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2018.1502568. Epub 2018 Aug 10. My copy feature on my cell did not pick up the authors’ names when copying their citation, but the doi should suffice for an easy search. The article discusses some of the issues dissociators have with mindfulness. I would like to eventually benefit from it. I just have a hard time right now is all.

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  2. You are welcome, Gayle. One of the things mindfulness meditation is expected to do is to separate one’s tendency to become melded with emotionally charged ideas in such a way as to make it easier to give them careful, studied, objective consideration. A dissociative process doesn’t achieve this kind of step, even if it does have some other benefits for the person with a traumatic history.

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    • I see. Welp, the adult me can look at thoughts and memories and see them as events that changed me, but are not necessarily a threat. The inner children and teens in me disagree, lament, wail, weep, and rebuke the adult me, and I am afraid to feel or express their pain for many reasons, which is why my nonemotional stance is really emotionally charged behind a mask of avoidance. I do or say what I think is morally correct as an adult, but it probably is not how I really feel inside. If I can face the threats and express the emotions, then I can learn to regulate them better I think. But when I subdue them, on the surface I look like I am making progress, but internally and covertly, my insides and parts of self are suffering more. It is an internal world of pain, and I fear that if I feel it, or truly face it without judging it, I will never escape the pain, or I will die from overwhelm. When I tried brainspotting, I felt like I was having seizures, and like all the memories were flooding in at warp speed. It was weird. I could not do it. What you said makes sense though. Intellectually, I think I get it, but experientially, I do not (yet).

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  3. Thanks for this Gerry. I have tried so many times to meditate. I am inspired to give it another go. And, I will keep this post to hopefully keep it going.

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  4. Composition VII by Kandinsky – picture No. 2 – sorta depicts the chaos within my internal world. I love the imagery in picture No. 1 though; it is calming and like a safe space. Your talent at matching art with your words is impressive, Dr. S. I am sorry you went through medical pain in the past, but I like your explanation on how mindfulness works. Your life as an example of overcoming adversity and pain is worth following.

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  5. Thanks, Gayle. I find your own example impressive.

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  6. Ive never meditated but I think it might help my needless fretting about the future and things I can’t control. I just don’t know how to begin and I’m afraid I’d get easily discouraged if I didn’t feel a change soon.

    I almost wish mild safe drugs could help either in the beginning or always. Just something subtle that would aid meditating…

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  7. You might enjoy reading a book by Robert Wright on Buddhism and meditation. He is something of a secular Buddhist. Wright is quite humble and open about his own path to meditation. Thanks for your comment, Mary.

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  8. An excellent and informative post, Dr. Stein! I began transcendental meditation (TM) in the mid-1980s and experienced a great transformation in my personal inter-relationships. According to my guru in the initiation process, TM not only alters our brain waves but also our aura: the energy field generated by each individual, which influences the way people feel in our presence.

    During periods of great stress, I found it difficult to quiet the “private internal self-torture we alone can hear.” But I persisted in the practice and continue to do so to this day.

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    • Certainly the tradition of meditation points to a changed attitude to the world of people and things by one who is transformed by meditation. In that sense one is changed and the people around us are changed. Thanks for sharing this, Rosaliene.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You are a good guy, Dr. Stein. Thank you!

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  10. Muchas gracias, Nancy.

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