Stress plays a prominent role in how we, as humans, perceive ourselves and others. We also know that stress plays an integral part in our health; from our blood biomarkers to our physiological state and lifespan, stress has a cascade effect on just about every aspect of our health. We sat down with Dr. Caroline Leaf, author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, to discuss her proven strategies to reduce stress through managing the mind.
What is a thought?
Let's start from the beginning: what is a thought? A thought is a concept or an idea built through a compilation of memories. The conscious mind constantly thinks, feels, and chooses how these thoughts are expressed internally with oneself and others. Forming thoughts is something that we naturally do all day long, and understanding their origins can help better equip us to express them positively.
The mind, the driving force behind our mental and physical state, is how we think, feel, and choose in response to what's happening around us. Just as our body has an immune system to protect us from viruses and foreign pathogens, so does the brain.  When the body detects a virus or a physical threat, it responds with protective mechanisms. Similarly, Dr. Leaf's work has found that the brain's immune system identifies toxic thoughts and labels them as a threat. And just as we want to lower our risk of contracting a virus that can make us sick, it's in our best interest to minimize the brain's toxicity to protect it from disease risk over time.
Of course, just as we can't avoid infectious viruses entirely, we can't always avoid toxic thoughts. Therefore, it's essential to train the mind to better respond to toxic thoughts as they arise and better equip the conscious mind to work through them as they inevitably occur.
What is the mind, and how does it contribute to health outcomes?
The relationship between sleep and the mind
Prioritizing restful sleep is critical for just about every aspect of health, from improved cognitive and physical performance to a robust immune system and muscle recovery. Check out this article for strategies to get a better night’s rest and this article to get sleep insights on your InsideTracker app.
How exactly does sleep impact the mind? A recent study found that sleep-deprived subjects had more intrusive thoughts, leading to more of a negative affect (emotional state) than rested participants. Results from another study demonstrated an association between restful sleep and positive affect and found that lower levels of sleep were associated with negative affect. Additionally, deep sleep is essential for the production of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains the length of telomeres (structures found at the end of chromosomes). And since shortened telomere length is associated with disease incidence and mortality, lack of deep sleep and shorter sleep duration is associated with early aging. All of this being said, Dr. Leaf has found that stressing about sleep may be just as detrimental to the mind and well-being as poor sleep itself! And this impact of toxic thoughts on sleep reinforces the need for tools to help us manage our thoughts.
How does stress impact sleep?
How can we take back control of our thoughts?
Dr. Leaf’s mind management techniques aim to bring awareness back to our thoughts. The mind is constantly working, and toxic thoughts inevitably arise. Suppressing toxic thoughts is a common coping mechanism, but it actually makes matters worse! Suppressed thoughts are stored in the nonconscious mind and can make their way to the conscious mind during times of anxiety. And, interestingly, they might not get fully suppressed even when we try. In one study, the action of suppressing thoughts activated visual areas of the brain, suggesting that visual representations of suppressed thoughts stay present, even when we're not consciously aware of them. Instead of suppressing thoughts, return your attention to the "controllable:" how we think, feel, and respond to those toxic thoughts.
Dr. Leaf challenges her readers to take a step back and become a “thought detective:”
- First, understand the triggers and signals for toxic thoughts—think critically about when, how, and why those thoughts arise.
- Next, ask yourself questions about these thoughts: how and why they make you feel the way they do.
- Third, write it all down. Whether it’s putting pen to paper or jotting down a thought in your phone, seeing words can help to organize your thoughts. If you feel comfortable, ask someone you trust to review your notes.
- Finally, apply what you’ve learned to the situation, either proactively or the next time it’s brought up.
The goal is to change your vantage point about a stress-inducing scenario and to find a more objective mindset that is less colored by your emotions and thoughts—and ultimately allow you to embrace and reconceptualize these thoughts and decrease the triggering impact they have on how you express them.
How can we use self-regulation to manage the mind?
Increase brain awareness through meditation
Meditation is a self-regulating technique that brings awareness and attention to the feelings in the mind and body at the present moment. During meditation, as the mind starts to wander, the meditator is encouraged to note the wandering thought and return the attention to the present moment and the breath. Tuning your mind into your body to create awareness each day can benefit many facets of health. Numerous studies show an association between mindfulness meditation and decreased cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels.[8,9] Meditation has even been shown to increase deep sleep and REM sleep.
Dr. Leaf encourages readers to use meditation as a brain preparation tool in combination with mind management. Meditation can help to reduce stress and increase calmness in the moment and over time. And it's important to utilize the mind management learned during meditation throughout the day, as the mind wanders to thoughts of the past and future. By working through thoughts using mind management techniques in tandem with meditation, you will build brain resilience.
Use visualization to relax your mind
Another way to begin to gain control over our thoughts is through a practice called visualization. Visualization is the process of using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. This technique allows individuals to imagine themselves in a specific stress-inducing scenario and enact how they’d respond to it. Visualization helps individuals prepare for stress by making them more resilient and effective in responding to it.
Dr. Leaf suggests several visualization techniques in her book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. In essence, she recommends that you imagine that you can create physical distance between yourself and the toxic thought or person that’s bothering you. Then play out would you say to a toxic thought or person that can’t touch you. Visualizing yourself navigating triggering scenarios can make you better equipped to handle them as they inevitably arise in real life. The key is to invite thoughts in and work through them, making you better equipped to manage them going forward.
According to recent studies, there is not a current consensus on protocols for practicing visualization. Robust, randomized-controlled trials are warranted to understand better the role that visualization can play on health and the mind.
Summary of key points:
- A thought is a compilation of memories. Because we’re forming thoughts naturally all day long, it’s essential to understand where these thoughts come from to equip us better to express them positively.
- Restful sleep is critical for the mind.
- Mind management is a technique that teaches people to be “thought detectives” and embrace their thoughts and reconceptualize rather than respond to them.
- Meditation is a self-regulating technique that brings awareness and attention to how the mind and body are feeling in the present moment, known to decrease stress levels.
- Visualization uses mental imagery to help individuals prepare for stress and practice how they’d respond to it, increasing resilience.
Michelle Darian, MS, MPH, RDMichelle is a Nutrition Specialist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian, you’ll find Michelle analyzing the research behind recent nutrition trends, bringing actionable food and supplement recommendations to the platform. When she's not myth-busting, Michelle can be found exploring new restaurants and getting creative in her kitchen.
Dr. Caroline LeafDr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Masters and Ph.D. in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.
 Leaf, Caroline. Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. Michigan: Baker Books; 2021.