How to stop fearful thoughts before they control you

The wind whipped through the house last night. Doors slammed shut and papers flew.

It is the end of September in San Diego and the wind was cold. We propped our bedroom door open so we could enjoy the breeze and sleep in the fresh air. We have done that every night for a few months now. We are so fortunate to have beautiful sleeping weather most nights. So grateful to wear flip flops in the day, and snuggle under a warm blanket at night. Last night was colder than normal, and we snuggled deeper.

Last night I slept the entire night except when I woke up with a fearful thought, "we don't have heat in our house!" It was one of those irrational middle-of-the-night fears and it wouldn't leave.



I lay there trying to remember where the heating vents were. I couldn't. No baseboards. No floor vents. I convinced myself there must be heat. All houses have heat, don't they?

What a thing to be worried about.

There are places in the world where this is a real problem. Some homes don't have heat because they are third world, or because the tenants can't afford to pay the bills. Some homes have heat because they live in a climate that gets crazy-cold in the winter. If the furnace quits, the house gets cold very quickly.

We had a furnace quit on us three times when we lived in New Jersey. I was not afraid, but I was definitely cold. The first time our furnace quit, our neighbor trudged through thigh-deep snow on December 26th to bring us a spare thermocoupler he had. He was a superhero that night.

But I didn't have a superhero to tell me I had heat in this house in San Diego. I was middle-of-the-night worried about whether or not the house was built with a heating system, and I was not alert enough to resolve my question by actually getting out of bed to look for the vent. (Actually, if I was alert enough to go look, I would have been alert enough to know I was thinking crazy thoughts.)

How fortunate am I to live in a climate where I haven't thought once about the heat in the five months we've lived here. Yet last night I was not feeling that gratitude. I was in the moment of fear where my emotions took me away from rational thought.

Human beings are built to worry. Built to feel fear. We have fears from a young age, and they form our thoughts, actions and dreams. It is part of our life's path to overcome those fears and become stronger.

The human condition is designed to let fear overpower us.

It is like a runaway car, with our sleeve stuck in the door. Fear can take us away, leave us struggling and pulling against it as if trapped. Fear traps our thoughts. Fear takes our thoughts on a ride.

Yet we are designed to be strong as well.

If we gave ourselves a moment to think about that trapped sleeve, we know we could roll out of that shirt and release it with the car.

Our thoughts can run away on us too. Yet we can stop and redirect our thoughts, even distract ourselves with something that has similar emotional intensity. If we do this, we can let go of our fears each time they try to take hold.

How do you stop your thoughts?

Start by saying, "STOP" out loud. If you are alone, this will jerk you back to reality. If others are around, their funny looks will do the same.

How do you redirect your thoughts?

You become aware of your thoughts first. Listen to them and follow them with some detachment, as if they are a cloud in your mind floating by. Then intentionally think of other subjects. Keep the subjects related to your fear, at first. The mind is tricky and it will lead you back to your fear if you struggle against the subject. So gently let go but allow them to float there, right in front of you, then gently change the subject.

Think of your mind like a puppy with a pull toy. Your mind will get bored when you are no longer resisting, and happily follow along.

How do you distract your own mind?

You dive into another thought or activity with a different emotion, but with the same intensity level as the thoughts that have you trapped.

Personally, I jump right back into my skydiving experience, as if I was right there. It was intense but joyful. Once I ride that emotion for a few minutes, my mind doesn't want to go back to that irrational fear. Not when it has something else more real to grab onto.

And as intense as skydiving is, floating in the sky is just the thing I need to put myself back to sleep, with the wind whipping through the doors.

What tricks do you use to distract yourself from worrying thoughts?
What do you do to get yourself back to sleep in the middle of the night? What works and what doesn't?


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