Breathe More, Think Less

You’re probably familiar with the cognitive-behavior technique known as “thought stopping,” used to cope with stressful and anxiety-intensifying thoughts and ideas during panic attacks, as well as with negative self-statements in depression.  I’ve never found this technique particularly useful, for me or my clients; even worse, its emphasis on replacing such thoughts with verbal affirmations means you’re trying to address a maladaptive mental habit by prescribing that very habit.  In other words, the problem isn’t negative verbal thoughts but verbal thought in general.

This isn’t true for everyone, but many of my clients turned to verbal thought at a very early age in an effort to master trauma, anxiety, major depression and the kind of emotional damage that leads to shame.  They’ve spent a lifetime coping with every emotional challenge by thinking about it.  That might sound like a positive endeavor — thinking is supposed to be a good thing, right? — but in fact, it’s a kind of defense mechanism where mentally/verbally describing an experience feels like a way of exerting control over it, in an almost a magical way.  The person who has developed this kind of defense tends to be very articulate, was often verbally precocious as a child, and over-values language.  As one of my clients once told me, “The only good to be found in suffering is if you can describe it well.”

Are you the sort of person who, in the privacy of your thoughts, is constantly talking to yourself about your experience?  Does your mental life consist of an endless stream of words in your head?  I’m one of these people, and I’ve incorporated some ideas and techniques from eastern meditative practice to help me stem the verbal flow.  It puts me more in contact with my body, and makes me aware of feelings and sensations I’m often trying to avoid with all those words.

Finding Your Own Way:

If you’re like me, you’ll find this exercise a major challenge, and my advice is to start small:  See if you can take five long in-and-out breaths without thinking and without any words in your head.  Focus on your breathing, the rise and fall of your chest as your lungs expand and contract, the sensations in your nostrils as air goes in and out.   (HINT:  you may end up describing this process to yourself and thinking something like, “I’m really doing well!  That’s four breaths, only one more to go.”)  Don’t expect yourself to do it perfectly, and don’t criticize yourself when you find yourself reverting to words.  Just keep trying.

Return to this exercise throughout the day.  Try to make it a regular part of your life.    One of the things I repeatedly find is that the words in my head often have NOTHING to do with the sensations in my body, nothing to do with what I’m actually feeling.  By focusing on my breath and thinking less, my goal is to get more in contact with my authentic experience, unmediated by all those words in my head that actually take me farther and farther away from myself and my true feelings.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Hi All,
    I want to reiterate Dr. Burgo’s mention of “eastern meditative practice” being helpful. It has been helpful for me, and profoundly so. For the past 3 or 4 months, I have been practicing Shambhala meditation, which is secular, has no particular religious ties, and does not require any sort of change in beliefs, rituals, or prayers (one of the reasons it appealed to me, being agnostic myself).

    More than anything, meditation has helped me differentiate between the critical thoughts playing continuously like a recording in my head and the silent, unbiased, naturally balanced “consciousness” behind those thoughts. It may be hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it, but meditation can definitely help combat over-analyzing (I’m an over-analyzer) or depressive thoughts. Not only that, it helps me stay calm during stressful moments and helps me focus like no cup of coffee ever could 🙂

    1. The distinction I’m trying to draw, Marie, is between the kind of shame that comes from being shamed by other people — for instance, the comment by the reader whose father told her he was ashamed of her as he changed her diapers — versus the shame that just IS. It is the felt knowledge that one have been damaged by one’s upbringing, which could be for many reasons OTHER than being shamed. Basic shame is just a fact of existence for some people who have never been shamed by anyone.

  2. Conscious breathing as a component of yoga helps me to take this process even further. Using your breath to help your body move in a certain, ordered way makes both the movement and the breathing easier. I experience it as moving meditation.

  3. Valuable article Joseph- Living in the moment is the true authentic experience and beneficial to everyone (especially those plagued by constant cerebral chatty). I shall try this simple exercise for the coming week and see how I get on.

  4. All thoughts in my head have always been personal conversations, usually me with a friend or foe either real or hypothetical. If I try to think about resolving a problem, it is always through a mental conversation. In the shower, where most of us clear our minds, I have a conversation going in my head. It never ceases and often keeps me awake at night. I’ve often wondered why I hadn’t heard about others who do this. I was hoping for some kind of reassurance that everyone does or that there is some meaningful therapy to reduce it. This is the first mention I’ve seen. Thank you.

    1. Mindfulness meditation — whether as a time you set aside or striving throughout your day for more quiet — can be very helpful. I no longer meditate, but instead I keep trying throughout the day to quiet my mind and focus on my breathing. If I’m successful about 5% of the time, that’s pretty good, but on balance, I find it greatly improves my overall state of mind.

      1. Thank you so much Dr. Burgo for this article. I find your blog completely compelling and long to keep discovering unread articles – how grateful I am that I found this one and at such a perfect time for me as well!

        I have always done this (had a constant stream of conversation inside my head – re-living past experiences by talking it through with myself, conversing with people in my mind – namely my therapist at the moment, talking myself through an event yet to come… even just telling myself to stop talking and go to sleep!) I was beginning to think there was something seriously wrong with me. I am yet to fully explore this with my therapist (I am only 14 weeks into therapy – so many things to work on!) but I know his compassion based mindfulness therapy will help.

        One of the things that I fear is making me resistant to change is that I think I am frightened that this over analysing and constant conversation in my mind is so fundamental to who I am that without it, what am I left with? Perhaps at the moment it’s a fear of the unknown… ‘better the devil you know’? Maybe? I know I want to change, I can’t go on like this, it’s exhausting and self destructive but there is something blocking my willingness to run with the notion that the opposite is better…

        I’m not sure if I’m explaining this properly – it sounds better in my head (haha) but anyway, thank you again – I really am so thankful to you for your dedication to your blog, it is a huge support to me in my journey.

        1. You’re explaining it quite well. I think that this “thinking” can definitely be defensive — that is, it serves to keep some other (probably painful) experiences out of consciousness. It makes sense that you’d feel anxious at the prospect of mental silence. Who knows what might come up?!

          1. Thank you for your reply. That completely makes sense and helps me join the dots as it were to my new experience of mindful meditation. The first time I meditated (with my therapist) I had this overwhelming wave of sadness wash over me and an urge to burst into tears – no thoughts of anything sad in my mind just the emotion. I didn’t cry (it is something I find very hard to do) but I asked my therapist why he thought I felt like this. After much discussion he suggested that perhaps the sadness was already there it’s just that the ‘mind noise’ was stopping me from hearing/seeing it. I had actually forgotten about that until reading your analysis because we moved on to focusing on a different issue. I tried the meditation exercises he taught me again a few times on my own and the same thing happened – I got upset, I got frustrated with myself and stopped trying to meditate. I don’t know how to get past the part where I feel sad and onto the meditation, I find the idea of ‘accepting’ and ‘tolerating’ the emotions totally alien, not sure I really know how to do it. With time and practice I’m sure I will learn as I am eager to make a change.
            Thanks again.

  5. “Does your mental life consist of an endless stream of words in your head? ”

    Yes, it does … but I understand (from others) that this is human nature – i.e., how our brains naturally behave. Although, from your comment, I assume you mean to imply that the mental chatter is more for some of us than for others? I am constantly analyzing – and likely on the “more” end of the mental chatter spectrum than the “less” – hence, I totally identify with what you describe in this post and how the mindfulness meditation can help.

    “(HINT: you may end up describing this process to yourself and thinking something like, “I’m really doing well! That’s four breaths, only one more to go.”)”

    This made me laugh as I’ve made very similar comments to myself in the midst of a meditation!!!

    Once again, thank you for sharing your experience and insights in such an articluate & clear manner!!

    1. You’re welcome. If you’re interested, there’s an entire chapter on “thinking” as a defense mechanism in my new book.

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