Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Toolbox

This morning I was still awake when the birds started the dawn chorus, it was the third time this week and the seventh in the last ten days. Once again I’d spent most of the night using a toolbox of mental exercises to ensure that I did not descend what I call the ‘Spiral of Doom'.

In essence the spiral is a model which explores the correlation between mood and the effect pain has on an individual. It is important to stress that the correlation is not between mood and the pain itself. On the downward trend, pain leads to deteriorating mood which makes the pain more noticeable and therefore the mood worsens, at the very bottom of this spiral lives the hell in which an individual believes self-harm is preferable to living with pain. Conversely if the mood is good the effect the pain has on the individual is lessened and life can become more enjoyable.

Assuming that in this model pain is a constant, there are two variables; the effect of the pain and the mood. There are ways to reduce the effects of pain; usually these involve the use of medical intervention of some kind. But a more practical, everyday way to influencing the spiral is to change the mood; this can be done by controlling the way thoughts are handled.

A thought is simply a collection of ideas, it is not anything more or anything less and it certainly is not a fact. That said it is possible to allow thoughts to catch in the mind and develop to the point where we truly believe them to be facts. When this happens an unfortunate incident like spilling the coffee ten minutes before giving a presentation can be elevated in the mind to the point where a whole day has been a total disaster. This is achieved by unhelpful thoughts such as;

“why is it always me? – I’m going to look like an idiot – the presentation is ruined.”

It is an unfortunate fact that unhelpful thoughts left unchecked will flash in and out of the mind sowing seeds which all too often go on to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

With practice it is possible to put the brakes on this process by challenging unhelpful thoughts. In the example above I could counter with something like;

“it doesn’t always happen to me, the presentation will be just as good even if I do have a coffee stain on my tie, and the lights will be dimmed so no one will notice the stain anyway.”

At times I have even written the answers down. It’s a bit like a Chinese take away menu; unhelpful thought number 7 gets challenged by helpful thought 4, 5 and 11. This ensured that I could get my responses in before the next harmful thought arrived. The list was written during the first few bouts, I found that the act of writing thoughts down slowed the process and gave me time to come up with better counter thoughts. These were then developed when I was a better able to think straight.

Eventually it became possible to recognise that I was having an unhelpful thought and I began to thank my mind for the thought but allow it to drift on as if it were a leaf on a river, by doing this I allowed life to progress without dwelling on the unhelpful thoughts.

You may have noticed that I use the terms helpful and unhelpful thoughts and not positive and negative, this is because “thinking positive” is not always the best approach. For instance if a person was to find a lump in their body and resolved to think positively about it they might find that by the time they visit the doctor it’s too late to do anything, Helpful thinking allows the individual to remain calm and assess the situation rationally and is more likely to result in an earlier visit to the doctor.

Having said all that; as I sat there listening to the dawn chorus (and secretly hoping that all 3 cats were out) I remembered the following quote from the 1970’s film “Kelly’s Heroes”;

‘Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?’ -Sergeant Oddball.

This morning that turned out to be the turning point I had been looking for.

The Toolbox

I have a special toolbox,
it’s one you cannot see.
It’s full of very clever tools
that I find work for me.

The top draw holds the basics
the tools used every day
Information and knowledge
To help keep fear at bay

The bottom draw is bigger
it holds the tools I need
To keep my mind healthy
when pain my thoughts impede

Conventional ways of thinking
can cause the mind to lock
for logic and analysis
can’t every dam unblock.

I’ve tools designed to challenge
unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
These trusty friends I often use
to stimulate a healing.

A new tool that I’m learning
uses counter force to win
In theory it’s simple;
you welcome these thoughts in.

There’s the pebble in my pocket
The leaf upon a stream
the words I choose to frame it
SMART goals define a dream.

Some tools have roots in business
Whilst others are based in sport
I’ve learnt to pick and mix
to live the life I ought.

My toolbox is a treasure trove
it draws on my whole life
to furnish me with techniques
that help reduce my strife.

John Carré Buchanan
13 March 2011


  1. Like the imagery of thoughts as tools to achieve a task - be they helpful or unhelpful, seems the key (skill) is in the choice.


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