I have been covering the ways we can control the brain which then can have tremendous effects on our health and well-being in all ways, not just mental health, but physical as well. Diet, physical activities such as exercise, sleep, and breathing, and finally self-regulation as was discussed in the last 2 posts are a great start. In this post, I will discuss thoughts or cognition.
I have covered previously how the brain creates connections to what we are spending our time doing and thinking. The more time we spend thinking about math, the more connections the brain creates for math functions. In essence, the density in areas of the brain where math functions take place, increases. This then makes some math tasks automatic, maybe even unconscious. What I am saying is that the more time you spend thinking and doing something, the easier the brain makes it to think about or do!
Another good example is learning to drive. The first few times we get behind the wheel require conscious thought for every single basic step - put the key in the ignition, which foot goes where, where's the blinker?, the headlights? Etc. Now, the only time you think about those things is if you are driving someone else's car. If we had to consciously think through every activity we did throughout the day, we would get very little done!
This is important to understand, because it brings home the message - if you spend a lot of time thinking about negative things, reading and doing negative things, the brain makes it easy, unconscious and automatic even, to be negative. Not only that, but the brain is automatically better at finding stressful, difficult, dangerous stimuli, because it is in the business of survival! So, it more easily tunes in to and tracks those things that cause stress, fear, or anger. We have to work harder to train the brain toward the positive.
Is it realistic to think positive? This is a common question that baffles me. I am not talking about walking down a dark, scary alley at 3am singing, "zippity doo dah" and thinking safe thoughts. On a daily basis though, we expose ourselves to a great deal of unwarranted danger signals that the brain is unable to distinguish - is it real danger or the usual stress? Is it real danger or is it news of some far off place? Some political shanannigans? The bad behavior of a co-worker? All of this is information that might be important to know, but spending too much time worrying, reacting, and getting frustrated about it isn't serving you. Letting your brain hang out with all this bad news and negative input compromises mental health and physical health.
How so? When the brain thinks a stressful thought, it floods the body with stress hormones. These feel yucky and creates poor physical health over time. Plus, this stress reaction gets to be automatic (as explained above) and these hormones and messengers are always in your body, messing with your health, your sleep, and your sense of well-being. It becomes your norm to be in this state and gradually your digestion, circulation, heart activity, and more are compromised. Not to mention, depression and anxiety disorders become easier to slide into and from there addictions....
So, what to do? Change your thinking. Change what you spend your time on. To begin, journaling can help. It helps to take the thoughts that tend to go 'round and 'round in the head, move them out of the cyclic pattern and into a new space in the brain. This can help us let go, re-frame or see things in a new light. For some who struggle with cyclical thinking at bedtime, journaling the thoughts and closing up the journal to let those thoughts go for the night is helpful. Journaling can be used to help us see our thoughts as separate from who we are. When we think a certain way, we sometimes see that as something that defines us. YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS! Journaling helps create distance. If I can think about my thoughts enough to be able to write them down, that is evidence that who I am is separate from my thoughts.
Another way you change your thinking is to create affirmations. Yes, this sounds hokey. However, it is easy to automatically wake up in the morning and groan about how tired you are, how you wish you had the day off, etc. We easily create complaints. Wouldn't it be nice if it were easy to smile at seeing another day? To start the day feeling an expanded sense of gratitude for life, for your job, and for the health of your loved ones? It's easy to point out flaws in ourselves and others. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to see the strengths? I often ask clients to list their strengths. Most often this is a really challenging task. They can list 5 flaws for every strength. Why is that? It's not more realistic. We are not inherently more flawed than we are gifted. Why not focus on the strengths and the gifts we carry?
Gratitude is an easy cognitive focus to make. I wrote about this in a previous post as well. Use gratitude to change your brain in a positive direction! Instead of the constant focus on what is NOT right in your life, gratitude helps us to see all that IS right. Very important, because there are things not right, but why spend so much time on them? There are many things that are right. Coming from a place of strength allows us more power to then deal with those things we think need fixing in this world. A "cup half empty" focus lowers the energy to take on the changes we need and want to make. I see clients all the time completely overwhelmed by their focus on all that is wrong in their lives and in the world. Is it more realistic? Absolutely not, because there are many things that are wonderful and right in the world as well and paying attention to them serves us much better!
One of my favorite cognitive change tasks is to wear a bracelet each day. Some people choose a specific bracelet that stands for something like those bracelets that we can buy to support breast cancer or heart disease or other causes. Set a goal: I will not gossip all day. I will not refer to myself negatively in my thoughts or my words. I will not engage in thinking that undermines my success. Then, every time the negative thought happens, the bracelet moves to the other wrist. The goal is to get through a day without moving the bracelet. Then, get through a week. Then a month. It is a great reminder and a life changing exercise!
Changing your brain requires changing your thoughts. It is easy to begin, but challenging to maintain. However, it may take just a few weeks and the results can then trigger a domino effect in which you see multiple thinking patterns topple and fall to the strength and power of your new positive mindset!