“Cultivation of the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”
As the philosopher Cicero implied in this quote, there are ways to nourish your body, and there are equally important ways to nourish your mind. You probably know how important it is to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body — if your diet is rich with nutritionally dense foods like vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats, your gut will be healthier, your brain will function better, and your risk of chronic disease will decrease. In short, you have to feed your body well in order to thrive and grow in health. The same goes for your mind and your thoughts.
In the same way that it’s important to feed your body with nutritious foods for strong physical health, it’s equally important to take a look at how you are feeding your mind for strong mental health.
Think about it: eating too many processed foods with little to no nutritional value often results in a buildup of toxins in your body over time, which negatively impacts your physical health. Similarly, there are many things you consume mentally that lead to a toxic buildup of unhealthy thought patterns in your mind, which can also greatly impact your health and well-being. These mental “toxins” can come from sources inside of you or from outside of you.
Sources Outside of You
Common sources of stress in your personal life can be ongoing, such as work or family commitments, or acute, such as experiencing a loss. These can all initiate negative thoughts and spiraling. The same goes for broader stressors that may not be directly related to your life, such as global conflict or tragedy in the news.
Unhealthy relationships and communication dynamics can also plant the seed of toxic thought patterns in your mind. A lack of communication, especially in your more prevalent relationships, often leads to ongoing stress, worry, and a feeling of burden.
Sources Within You
Unhealthy thoughts also often evolve from internal habits. If you are prone to being hard on yourself, those thoughts take root and grow into toxic patterns quickly.
For example, making comparisons is a major perpetuator of what are often problematic thoughts. When you compare yourself to others, whether it’s in the context of work, family life, responsibilities, appearance, or abilities, you not only fill your mind with negative messages about yourself, but you are also unable to accept yourself as you are, which prevents you from growing in well-being.
Another way negative thought patterns arise is through rumination. According to Julie Geeting, LPC, NBC-HWC and Coaching and Counseling Lead at PALM Health, “When you’re ruminating, your thoughts are often on the symptoms of the problem you’re facing, or on who is to blame, without any attention to how to solve the problem.” Rumination leaves little room for new ideas, insights, or solutions. It can take you far away from what is real, tangible, and factual, leading you down a steep spiral.
Whether they are sparked by a situation external to you or by a habit or worry within you, having negative thoughts is a common part of life. It becomes a problem, however, when you become attached to those thoughts and allow them to grow into unhealthy patterns, which can quickly fill your mind with a toxic buildup.
Becoming Aware of Your Unhealthy Thought Patterns
You are not your thoughts. In order to think clearly, to see the world as it is, and to grow in well-being, it’s important to create space between yourself and your thoughts.
Your mind is like a garden that needs to be tended. There are the beautiful plants and flowers, which are akin to your healthy thoughts and positive outlook, and then there are the weeds, which are like those unhelpful, inaccurate, heavy, irritating thoughts that often invade and attempt to crowd out the plants. Those weeds can prevent you from truly thriving, so it’s important to become aware of them and identify where they come from so you can begin to pick them out and reduce the toxicity in your mind.
Awareness is the first step in detoxifying your mind. Though there are no easy tips or quick solutions to this, there are some concepts that are helpful to keep in mind going forward that may help you begin to gain an awareness of your patterns of thinking.
First, it’s imperative to remember that being calm and non-judgmental is the best way to move forward and start becoming aware of your thoughts. When you’re stressed and overwhelmed, your ability to reflect in a constructive way is greatly reduced. Attempting to reflect when you’re in a state of stress can make it more likely that you fall back into the trap of rumination, which is not helpful. Whether you attain it by exercising, spending time in nature, meditating, getting acupuncture or a massage, or using other wellness services, getting yourself calm can facilitate a more productive process of awareness of your unhelpful patterns of thought.
When you’re gaining an awareness of your thoughts, it also helps to think about observing them objectively. As discussed earlier, a feeling of attachment to your thoughts can worsen those toxic patterns in your mind. When you’re having negative thoughts, try to look at them with neutrality and objectivity. Simply notice them without labeling them as “good” or “bad.” Try not to latch onto them and allow them to sweep you off your feet. It’s when you latch onto those negative thoughts that they can carry you far from reality.
It may help you stay objective to ask yourself some check-in questions as well. When you’re in a state of calm, come back to some of those thoughts you were having earlier. “Ask yourself, ‘How accurate was that thought?’ and ‘How helpful was that thought?’” says Julie Geeting. Reflecting on this when you’re not in the heat of the moment may help you make observations about the nature and causes of the unhealthy thoughts that bother you, as well as how far from reality they may be.
Finally, revisiting the possible root causes of those negative thought patterns by reflecting upon how you are feeding your mind and what you are consuming mentally can also help you begin to gain awareness of the toxic buildup in your mind. What are you reading or watching in the media? How do you communicate with others, and how do others communicate with you? How do you communicate with yourself?
If you are feeling particularly stuck, especially when it comes to awareness and identifying what stressors may be prompting feeling stuck in an unhelpful pattern, PALM Health offers a personalized stress management assessment, InSight, which allows you to work with a team of integrative health and mental health professionals to learn more about yourself, your stressors, and blockages that may be interfering with your resilience. The program is led by PALM’s Director of Mental Health, Nigel Lester, MD, and includes a psychiatric consult with him, as well as consults with a functional medicine nurse practitioner, a counselor, and a well-being coach. InSight participants gain awareness around root causes of stress in their lives through the groundbreaking TCI personality assessment. The program culminates with a session with a licensed social worker to create actionable steps, guided by recommendations from the InSight team to work on your individualized stress management goals. Learn more about InSight through the button below.
Unhealthy patterns of thought can stem from so many sources, including events and situations outside of you and habits within you. It’s easy to get swept up in those thoughts and allow them to dominate you, but eventually this can become toxic to your mental health. In order to maintain a healthy outlook and grow in well-being, it may help you to start gaining more awareness of what you are feeding your mind and your spirit, and how that affects your thoughts, as well as learning how to find a state of calm to observe your own patterns of thought more objectively. Eventually, this can help you let go of negativity so you can reduce mental toxins and start nourishing yourself — body, thoughts, and soul — instead.