We tend to believe our own thoughts.
All day long they filter in. Some stick with us, some leave. Those that we allow to stick with us often tend to be the negative ones. And even when we experience moments of pure joy, we allow them to be interrupted by feelings of guilt or insecurity.
As trivial an example as this may be, it demonstrates the point pretty well. I’m at home today and I’ve just decided to make a pancake with some mixture I had left over in the fridge. Eating it should be a moment of pure joy. It’s so rare I make pancakes, so when I do, I find myself reminiscing back to childhood when my mum would make us endless piles of them, topped with fresh lemon and sugar. It’s a glorious day. The sun is shining and the sky is blue and cloudless. Sitting outside and savouring this moment would only enhance these joyful thoughts. Yet instead, I allow my mind to wander negatively. I allow it to tell me “You should be working, not enjoying yourself”. And so, I feel guilty. And instead of going into the moment and savouring it, I eat my pancake, rushed, back at my desk and those joyful thoughts are quickly sabotaged.
So why is it then, that we sabotage enjoyable moments such as these and yet prolong the agony of negative ones?
Negative thoughts can hang around with us anything from a few minutes to several years. We are masters at turning short-term stresses into long-term, even life-long, grievances, pain or anguish. This may begin with a simple thought such as “I wonder why he spoke to me that way in the lift just now?” or “What did she mean by that exactly?” or “I never get to do what I want, I’m always having to do what suits other people best.” You get the idea. You may even be having one of those thoughts now as you read this article.
They gnaw away at you. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find there’s a whole load more knock-on negative stuff happening to you that you’ve turned a blind eye to. Your thought quickly tracks from your mind to your body and becomes an emotion. This emotion, let’s say its anger, immediately gets your heart racing. Enormous amounts of blood is then pumped to your extremities as your body perceives this angry thought and emotion as a threat or an attack. It doesn’t recognise it’s not a cheetah running out of the bushes to eat you for lunch. All it knows is that it’s received a signal to suggest you’re under attack. So even though the thought relates to a ‘perceived threat’ (“Was he having a go at me in the lift?”), the body reacts as if some physical threat is actually happening.
What’s happening is that this stress response is activating your amygdala, which is the fight or flight response. It’s what we commonly call “stress” and is a reaction to our external environment — which in this case is someone saying something to you in the lift. In turn, this creates internal (or in some cases, external displays of) feelings of aggression, frustration and anxiety.
Yes, just one single negative thought does all this. And scarily, it’s where most people spend the majority of their time. And what’s amazing is that this thought can be something from the past, from the present, or we can conjure up this bodily concoction for something in the future that hasn’t even yet occurred. The thought, then the emotion, is all that is required. It’s all rather clever and if you think about it, could be put to much better use. That’s what this article is about.
At this point, in stress-mode, you have two choices. You can either choose to stop the negative thought (you could go one step further and disperse the stress hormones by doing star jumps or push ups — although let’s face it, that’s unlikely in most situations) or you can keep going with the negative thought. The easiest and quickest way to shift things is to quickly change your environment. Get up, go for a walk outside, laugh with a friend, distract yourself — any of these will often do the trick. Failing that, you’ll likely continue to create more negative emotions in the body and before long, you’ll have pushed up your blood pressure, too.
Research suggests that we produce up to 50,000 thoughts a day and 70% to 80% of those are negative. This translates into 40,000 negative thoughts a day that need managing and filtering. How often would you say that happens to you? Have you ever stopped to think?
All this robs your immune system of the energy it needs to fight disease — anything from the common cold to far more serious conditions which you’re increasing your risk of exposure to. But hold on, I’ve probably scared you enough. Even writing this is making my own heart race. By just thinking about anger and stress, my body begins to actually feel it as if it were actually happening and reacts immediately by raising my heart rate to increase my blood flow.
So what’s the answer?
It’s obvious isn’t it? In fact, it’s so obvious that it seems too easy and we dismiss it. Or we tell ourselves it’s unrealistic to think positive, loving, joyful thoughts all the time. It’s the stuff of ridicule, particularly in the workplace. We excuse it by saying we’re only human. Or worse, we tell ourselves and each other to “man up”. And then a minute later, another negative thought comes your way. You know the rest…. and of course, we are, only human. I’m sure you’ve never heard of a cheetah worrying for days on end about the lion that chased him last week. No, this phenomenon is particular to us and us alone.
And we’re addicted to it. Stress gives us a shot of adrenalin, and chemicals flood our cells to create a sensation akin to a very strong espresso. How many people do you know who are addicted to stress and fixated on their problems? How many times a day do you conjure up an unreal threat just to feel this sensation? You’ve possibly never thought about it.
It makes us selfish, too. When we’re continually operating from this survival mode, we’re primed to think about ourselves and ourselves only.
It doesn’t make good reading does it?
Being in the flow
Yet when you’re in flow, for example enjoying something so fully that you forget yourself, forget where you are, who you are and even what you are, you are activating a different part of the brain. If you don’t know it already, it’s called the frontal lobe, which comprises the pre-frontal cortex. It’s the creation part of our brain. And so, if our negative thoughts are making us ill, would the opposite also be true? Could positive thoughts make us healthy and is being in the flow the answer?
Yet it’s simply not likely, nor practical, to be in the flow all the time. My mind turns to windsurfing, having dinner with close friends or meditating when I think of being in the flow. You will have different ideas about what puts you into this state, but generally, these are not things most of us can afford to be doing all day long.
Yet there is a way. It requires practice, but it can be done. It doesn’t mean you won’t be knocked out of, let’s call it alignment, but it means that when you are, you don’t gnaw at what’s happened like a dog with a bone. You acknowledge it, but you don’t let your thought become an emotion and swamp your body with stress hormones. You let it go and you allow your body to return to its correct equilibrium.
Joe Dispenza, biochemist and neuroscientist suggests there are 3 ways in which we can do this:
This means becoming more self-aware i.e. recognising what is happening, or about to happen, and learning how to prevent any unwanted states of mind and the body taking hold. We have the power to observe our own thoughts, yet many seldom use it. Your attention is where you place your energy so get to know yourself, understand yourself. Be more aware of your nature, your values and observe your automatic emotional reactions to situations. This takes time and patience but the purpose here is to weed out the thoughts, actions and emotions that you no longer want to express, or experience and which do not serve you.
2. Create yourself a new type of mind
Breaking those long-held patterns requires your influence. What you are doing is literally rewiring your brain. Turn off the TV, stop absent-mindedly scrolling your phone and create time in your day for self-reflection. Read books on the subject or consciously watch good quality video content that will help you in this process. Plenty of people have cracked this, so learn from them. Start thinking about your dreams, your visions for the future, a better way to live and be as a colleague, friend, partner or parent. Think of people you most admire and what similar traits you’d like to adopt. Be grateful. Instead of thinking how far you have to go. Keep track of your progress and recognise how far you’ve come. I’ve written more on this here. This seemingly simple act has been life-changing for me. Keep doing this.
3. Get creative, get in the flow
This lowers the volume of everything else. It quietens neural activity and dims the self-critic, the negative chat and challenges the self-doubt over your ability to change your thoughts.
When you experience being in the flow and the internal environment it creates within you, it has the opposite effect to having negative thoughts. Say, for example, you want to be more compassionate. Ask yourself what it would be like to be compassionate. Your brain then goes off to look for the answer, drawing from information you’ve seen, heard or read. With practice and reinforcement (reading, watching articles on the subject) it will begin working in this new, more compassionate way, it has learnt.
And it goes one step further. If you’ve ever heard of vision boards and disputed their worth, don’t. I’ve heard many a story of them becoming a reality and this is why. A thought becomes an emotion and you then begin to imagine and feel like the event is actually taking place. It may sound far-fetched to you right now, but we may actually be able to create our own reality, a reality which begins life as a simple thought. When you make the thought more real than anything else, powerful things begin to shift in your life. It may sound a little magical, a little fantastical to you right now perhaps, but I am currently working on this myself right now and will write again on my experiences.
So, I bid you good luck. Just don’t write off what you’ve just read. I write to reinforce my own experiences and learnings and I can guarantee you that with commitment and practice you’ll being to feel, and act, entirely differently (i.e better) if you follow the suggestions above. Allow yourself 30 mins in the morning to practice. Get visioning and get into the right ‘state’ for the day ahead and whenever you can, observe yourself, your thoughts and reactions. Track your progress. Track your gains.