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Drowning in Toxic Thoughts: A Practice for Mindfulness

Are you stressed and tormented by your thoughts, again? Even when they are benign, the spinning and sheer pace of them affronts your brain’s processing center. And there is no escape from the onslaught.

Most of us have been there. Sometimes it’s not so easy to slow things down or even take a full breath between those racing thoughts. What can you do to calm down and stop the “runaway train”?

Sometimes the only option is to temporarily engage in something that grabs your attention. Netflix, a walk, doing a body scan, preparing a meal, or — my favorite — playing online scrabble. When the racing thoughts get slower, you can start to feel the space between them. And that makes it easier to practice the mindfulness technique that I will describe at the end.

We live in a society that teaches us to be distracted from the Self. Even with tiny infants, people will snap their fingers, touch the infant’s cheek or wave an object to bring the baby back from looking off into space or “day dreaming.” Ouch! How unfortunate. Instead of encouraging these moments that can support mental well being, “mindlessness” is seen as bad. Even as adults, others can feel compelled to bring us back to “reality.” Commanding us to bring our attention back to earth if we pause and daydream even for a moment. Feeling insulted if we need a moment to get refocused in a conversation.

In this way, we learn to distract ourselves from focusing within, and self-reflection stops. This can affect us adversely. The “muscle” that we use to keep our attention on ourself can get weak. Even our ability to retain information is affected. A new study, published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, suggests that a wandering mind correlates with higher degrees of what is referred to as working memory,” writes Joseph Stromberg of Smithsonian Magazine. “Cognitive scientists define this type of memory as the brain’s ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions.

Those relentless thoughts also gain momentum when we are anxious for approval. We can dwell on scrutinizing people’s body language and reactions to us for signs of rejection, rarely standing confident in our own opinions and responses. We may adjust our “performance” to show everyone how good, caring, funny, or intelligent we are and can lose touch with our real feelings.

Perhaps sadness, or enthusiasm, or anger, or curiosity are frowned upon in our families — so when we start to have those feelings we distract ourselves and push the feelings down.

All of this tends to separate us from what is referred to as our Authentic Self. Instead, we develop an Adaptive Self whose purpose it is to help us fit into the expectations of people we feel dependent upon. Now we are another step further from ourself and our inner voice now gives a running commentary on how we are faring in pleasing others.

Fast forward a number of years and we now have little control over how much time we spend thinking. Obsessive thoughts and anxiety grab our attention for inordinate periods of time. We have an inner story going on that sounds real but is more like Cinderella’s evil stepmother than a compassionate companion.

So, we need to start at the basics and learn to keep our attention within — and in a compassionate way. Anchoring ourselves to the flow of the breath can free us from this tyranny of thoughts.

Here is one way. I call it Conscious Breathing Practice.

Here are the steps:

We tend to experience our breath as “coming in and out” or “going up and down.” Either way is ok for this practice.  

Whichever direction you choose, the task is to anchor your attention on one breath cycle as you receive and then release it.

To begin with, it is best to be somewhere where you won’t be disturbed; with repetition you will be able to do this anywhere.

  1. Get comfortable siting or laying down.
  2. Take a few deeper breaths. Exhale releasing any tension you are aware of. Lower your shoulders. Relax your belly.
  3. Start noticing the rhythm of your breath and begin to anchor your attention to the in-breath and then the out-breath. Do not anticipate what is coming next — get fully absorbed in how your breath is moving at this moment.
  4. When you become relatively relaxed, start counting the breath cycles. One breath in and one breath out counts as cycle #1. Every time you complete a cycle without your mind wandering add one cycle to your count. This will be difficult at first — stay patient with yourself.
  5. When your mind wanders (perhaps after two breaths) start counting from #1.
  6. Practice this daily until you can focus on your breathing for 20 cycles without your mind wandering.

You can do this in elevators, while on hold on the phone, at a red light or waiting for the bus. To help stay centered, practice this when you feel stressed or are in a conflict.

Doing this in the morning helps start your day with calmness. Doing it at night helps let go of stress.

Practice this and leave a comment below.

Click here to read the first part of this series “Drowning in Toxic Thoughts? Is Your Mind a Master or a Servant?”


Stromberg, J. (2012, Apr 3) The benefits of daydreaming. Retrieved from

Levinson, D.B., Smallwood, J., & Davidson, R.J. (2012). The persistence of thought evidence for a role of working memory in the maintenance of task-unrelated thinking. Psychological Science, 23 (4): 375-380. Retrieved from

Drowning in Toxic Thoughts: A Practice for Mindfulness

Yana Hoffman, CCDC, RP

Yana Hoffman is a Registered Psychotherapist with 35+ years experience with individuals and specializes in working with couples in distress. She works in person and online using an eclectic approach bringing together Attachment Theory, Internal Family Systems, Mindfulness, Imago and RLT (Terry Real). She lives on a river in rural Ontario an hour from Toronto where she also does her art. Her full Therapist Bio can be seen on Psychology Today’s Therapist Listing. She welcomes your comments and invites you to email her at Follow her on Twitter @yanas_blogs.

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APA Reference
Hoffman, Y. (2018). Drowning in Toxic Thoughts: A Practice for Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Nov 2018 (Originally: 25 Nov 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 25 Nov 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.