Win the heart to tame the mind: 6 steps to manage negative thoughts

I was working with an athlete recently who shared with me that, upon heading to a recent competition, she started feeling anxious the minute she pulled into the parking lot, and then the symptoms escalated from there. She had spent years honing her skill and had risen to a high level, and so had been surprised when lately she began experiencing this pre-competition panic. I asked her what she observed to be the first signs of this stress, and she replied that the first symptoms were her hands shaking and her mind racing with negative thoughts. Her thoughts often involved comparing herself to others and berating herself for not having more self-control. The more she tried to rein in the thoughts, she continued, the more it seemed to spiral out of control.

While each person’s experience of nerves is unique, they often share many commonalities, including the usual approach taken to resolve the uneasiness. Anxiety is a natural emotion that is experienced as a combination of physical tension, in both the body and the breath, along with unpleasant thoughts and emotions. The anxious feelings may be accompanied by additional concern about the worry itself and how this will affect performance. This is called meta-worrying. In an effort to resolve the unpleasant feelings and to refocus attention, the person often attempts to push away the thoughts, replace them with a positive one and tell themselves to focus, often with little effect. 

It starts with the heart.

Many social posts and inspirational quotes remind us repeatedly that positivity is a choice. We are told to overcome the negative thoughts and reinstate the positive ones, like a warrior in a battle for mental dominance. But what first appears to be a quick conquest often turns into endless waves of the negative army coming at you. 

The futility of battling the negative thoughts may lie squarely in our framing of it as a battle to be won. Taking this dominance approach can backfire because it is not our mind that is crying out to us. It is our heart. And a heart is not won over with force, but with love. So perhaps the solution to taming the negative thought spiral is to first approach the heart with love and understanding before you provide the mind with redirection.

Bring out the Inner Friend before you bring out the Inner Coach

Have you ever had a time when you shared a problem with a friend or a loved one, only to have them immediately offer unsolicited advice? Scowling, you harp back that you only wanted to vent and a shoulder to cry on. While it’s understandable that the friend wants to help you feel better, rushing to fix a problem before acknowledging your feelings can feel invalidating and can add to the tension you are already feeling. 

Helping ourselves overcome worry works much in the same way. Rushing to push the unpleasant thoughts away and replacing them with positive ones can feel invalidating and mechanical, and often creates more tension, which in turn can impair performance. Instead, we may benefit by taking a moment to recognize that the heart is hurting. Like an inner friend, we can listen and acknowledge, and then accept ourselves as we are, as a human who makes mistakes and experiences struggle. Once the heart has been truly heard, the mind is more receptive to receiving direction from the inner coach.

While this may sound like a long process, it is one that can happen quite seamlessly if practiced in daily life. The heart knows when it is being cared for, and sensing an attitude of positive self-validation, the mind’s resistance often melts instantly and is replaced with new resolve. 

6 R’s to win the heart and tame the mind.

Next time you are feeling anxious, try tending to your heart first by following the simple steps below. The first three steps serve to create space for listening and acknowledging, and the last three steps serve to reset the focus back on the action at hand. Rather than focusing on the outcome, set your focus on learning to support yourself through your thoughts and actions. Each time you practice the steps, congratulate yourself on a job well done.

  1. Recognize – Notice thoughts and feelings as they arise. Rather than trying to silence the brain, just observe what is showing up today. Be curious rather than judgmental.
  2. Remind – Remind yourself that nerves are normal. Everyone gets them! Remember that you may also feel excited, hopeful, and joyful. Remember to smile and enjoy the journey!
  3. Release – Release excess tension through your breath. Allow your belly to inflate softly, then exhale slowly,dropping tension from your eyes, jaw, shoulders and arms.
  4. Reset – Choose an external cue to help you bring your attention back to the present. Rest your gaze on your hands, racquet strings, ball or other object and remind yourself to “BE HERE NOW.”
  5. Reaffirm – Be your biggest fan by reaffirming yourself with positive self-talk. What do you need to hear right now? Choose a short phrase that makes you feel empowered and confident.
  6. Refocus – Ask yourself what is one thing you could do right now to help you move toward your goal. Choose a tangible action that is within your control. Action breeds motivation and helps build the momentum you need to shine.

Ready, Set, Go!

Going for big goals takes guts to put yourself out there and grit to stick with it when things get tough. When we are down, we sometimes first need a friend to listen with nonjudgmental acceptance. You can learn to be that friend for yourself. It’s not the perfect athlete that wins, but the one who keeps showing up for themselves, even after they fall. By learning to pick ourselves up with kindness and compassion, we can find more strength and resolve to continue to pursue our goals. Go for it!

If you want to learn more about how to develop emotional resilience and reach your goals, reach out to me for a FREE initial consultation!