A recent study from the University of Virginia explored the concept of “mind wandering.” I found one of their findings to be “shocking” to say the least: 2/3 of the men surveyed and 1/4 of the women said that they would prefer to receive a small electrical shock to being alone with their thoughts. 

One theory is that the constant stimulation we experience through technology has made being alone with our thoughts a foreign concept. When we do have a moment alone with ourselves, the results can be uncomfortable. As a psychologist in private practice, I often find that people enter therapy when they have downtime and find themselves uncomfortable with the thoughts and feelings that emerge.

Being comfortable with our own thoughts is an important skill and it’s one that can be learned.  Here are some tips:

  • Pay attention:  Next time you find yourself standing in a line or waiting for an appointment, resist the temptation to look at your phone for the latest e-mail or Twitter response.  Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up for you.  Do you remember your latest vacation?  Are you worried about a meeting with your boss?  Are you sorting through a fight with your spouse?
  • Spend some time each day alone with your thoughts: Spend 5-10 minutes a day to see if your experience with your thoughts changes. Maybe that discomfort you experienced the first time changes to a curiosity. Maybe you notice a pattern to your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps an uncomfortable thought or feeling comes up and you prefer distraction, however:
  • Think of your reactions like waves: Our thoughts and feelings come and go like waves. Sometimes they are strong, like a tsunami and almost knock us down.  Other times, they are like small ripples. When we try to ignore our feelings, then they blindside us when we least expect it. However, if we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they tend to come and go.
  • Consider what you learn about yourself and take action if necessary: Maybe you learn that you are consumed with anger toward an individual. Use that information to make the necessary changes (it might be limiting interactions with toxic people, it might be a direct conversation to resolve the anger or it might mean therapy to understand why that relationship is so upsetting to you).  
  • Accepting ourselves allows us to be more at peace with our thoughts.  If you can acknowledge and understand all your thoughts and feelings, not only the pleasant ones, then you will feel more connected to yourself.  Knowing yourself well, even the rough edges, is the starting point for making peace with yourself, instead of needing to distract yourself.

So, next time you are tempted to go for the shock over sitting with yourself and your thoughts, pause and see what happens. Constant distraction can avoid some momentary discomfort, but tends to lead to a life of “going through the motions” instead of feeling connected to your inner-self.