Humans have extraordinary brains but they’re difficult to drive.
The problem is that our brain is so powerful — so good at imagining the various possible states of reality — that our body doesn’t realize it’s not real.
A few hundred years ago, some writer who fancied himself a philosopher pointed this out with the witty phrase, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.”
We’ve all drifted into a dangerous thought and, before you know it, you’re there: heart pumping and mind racing, vividly day-dreaming the worst possible outcome as if it were happening right now.
But it’s not really happening.
It almost certainly never will.
And even if it does, worrying about it won’t help.
So you may as well think about something nice instead.
A few years ago, James Altucher taught me something that helps calm dark and anxious thoughts.
Life wasn’t easy at the time. A cruel twist of fate had me walking past my new ex-girlfriend’s road almost every day after work. Grim visions of mistakes and arguments would envelop me as I passed, blackening my mood for the rest of the evening.
To stop this, James told me that every time I caught myself thinking negative thoughts, stop and ask, “Is this helping you right now?”
Almost always, the answer is ‘No.’
It takes some effort to remember to do this when we’re swept up in a storm of thoughts, but it becomes easier with time. To create a bigger gap from the tempest, we can follow up with, “What is useful to think about right now?”
Every time we do this, we save ourselves from a little unnecessary suffering and we train our brain to be more positive in future.
Do it enough, and eventually you’ll barely need to do it at all.