Why Your Thinking Sucks (and what to do about it)

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Sound Familiar?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of negative thinking. For many people in recovery and otherwise the struggle is indeed real against a constant barrage of extremely negative thoughts. It’s no wonder that we feel exhausted, sad, and defeated on our best days, and hopeless on our worst.

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In many ways, our mind has become our enemy with a constant stream of maladaptive and ineffective thinking that we are not even aware of. So why is is that our minds tend towards the negative and have to work to find the positive? Well, it turns out there is a good reason and the really good news is there is something you can do about it.

From the beginning of time our brains have been hardwired to look for problems to solve. Nature wanted to make sure we survived and a part of the survival instinct is to scan the horizon for trouble and to protect ourselves from danger. Millions of years ago this instinct was adaptive and helped our species to survive. We sensed danger everywhere and in turn protected ourselves from it. Our brains are also natural problem solvers. The brain wants to figure things out, solve puzzles and riddles, insure our safety, our brains need to work. And if the brain can’t find a problem to solve it will make something up. It will usually drag up something from the past to work on or it will imagine something in the future and go to town attempting to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet and since it hasn’t happened yet there are about a million and one ways the brain can imagine it actually happening and a million and one ways it may be able to solve it. Sound exhausting? It is. The problem with both of these scenarios is that they don’t actually exist. The past and the future do not do not exist so the brain is attempting to solve a problem that isn’t real which leads us into either guilt, shame and remorse ( based in the past) or worry and anxiety ( based in the future) with no real solution to a nonexistent problem.

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I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh-darnit, people like me.

But, I’ve digressed a bit. Aside from the natural problem solving nature of the mind, it has been proven that negative thoughts cause more activity in the brain than positive thoughts and we are naturally wired to absorb the negative events more than the positive:

“Take, for example, the studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago. He showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). Meanwhile, he recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place.”

“The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.”
https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias

Additionally it has been proven that it takes 5-10 positive events to counterbalance one negative event. For a great article on this click here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201406/are-we-hardwired-be-positive-or-negative
So there you have it: your negative thinking is natural so it isn’t your fault AND it will indeed make your life miserable if left unchecked. So what is the solution?

Ahh solutions! I adore solutions. And the good news is that there are many. First stop blaming yourself when you think negatively and realize that your brain is not broken, it’s actually functioning exactly as it was designed to function. Next we must…and I repeat MUST begin to counter the negative thinking with positive thinking. Now I don’t mean to say “just think positively”…telling someone to “think positively” may get you punched in the snoot.

But we can begin to allow ourselves to absorb the positive experiences that are all around us and begin to make up for our naturally occurring positive thought deficit.

 

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We can being to look at things through a different lens. Take for example the idea of support. Everyday I am supported by things seen and unseen. I am supported by the earth, literally the ground on which I am walking. I am supported by the trees, literally the oxogen they are providing me, same thing with air. I am literally supported by gravity, the sun, rain and all the natural elements. These things all allow me life. Literally. If I can’t find anything positive to absorb at the very least I have the elements on which I can ( if I so choose) to focus my attention and appreciation.

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We can also look at the idea that if positive experiences have less of am impact on us than negative experiences, we may need to look at how to cultivate more positive experiences in our life. Individually we all have things we love, perhaps it’s music, or art, or animals or a group of people, cooking, reading, the list goes on. Making an effort to incorporate more of these things into your daily routine can have enormous positive benefits. Surrounding yourself with positive images and things you love can also have an impact on how you feel. My office at work has a lot of personal items that bring me peace, crystal salt lamps, items for my meditation practice, a few special statues that mean something special to me, a photo of one of my dogs. When my mind begins to tend towards the negative, I am able to gently remind myself I need a shot of positive and I am able to focus my attention and my appreciation on any of these things. Personally I have found meditation as one of the best tools I have at my disposal where I can begin to consciously direct my attention towards things at make me happy and peaceful and away from things that freak me out and make me crazy.

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In Dialectical Behavior Therapy http://behavioraltech.org/resources/whatisdbt.cfm
Marsha Linehan has created a skill set called “Improving The Moment” where she gives us a long detailed list of ways we can improve any moment even if it is just a little bit. In DBT the skills are used for distress tolerance but I have also found them extremely useful for just a plain old crappy day or more often a crappy attitude about a normal day. To get an idea of these skills click here: http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/improve.html

In another section of her Skills manual she gives us a list of “pleasant events” to incorporate into our lives in order to make life more meaningful. Simple ideas really, but how often do we take time to consciously cultivate positive experiences into our hectic and stressful day? When is the last time you laid in the grass and looked at the stars? To see a list of some of activities click here:
http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/er_handout_8.html

The point I want to make here is that we do not have to be slaves or our naturally wired negative thinking. We have choices. The monkey mind is going to do it’s thing, constantly scanning the landscape for trouble, but we have the ability to train that little monkey to work for us rather than against us. And it takes effort. Let me repeat that: It takes EFFORT. Left to it’s own devices, many of us will stay stuck in patterns of unhealthy, ineffective thinking that causes suffering. Thoughts like “ Why ME?? “ This sucks”, “ I can’t”, “ it will always be like this”, I’ll never have ( fill in the blank)” will naturally continue to arise unless we make the choice to challenge that thinking and counter those experiences with positive thoughts and events. Today may we all find gratitude and unattached appreciation for the things that make our hearts sing and allow the positive thoughts to overpower the negative.

 “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” 
— Willie Nelson

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Meditation Provides Evidence Based Solutions To Stress Reduction.

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This dude is observing his mind.

Let’s talk about stress. We all have it and in many cases stress is making our lives unmanageable. Stress brings on tension, headaches, weight gain, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, increases heart rate and can make life feel miserable on a daily basis. With our world today it seems unlikely that life situations will soon be changing in much of a way that stress is alleviated so the questions becomes what can YOU do about your stress? Live with it? Or reduce it?

Not all stress is bad for us. “When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-causes-and-effects.htm

Stress is a natural function of the limbic system otherwise known as your lizard brain. Stress is the precursor to “fight or flight” mode and millions of years ago stress was used to insure survival. Feeling threatened meant we may have to launch into “fight or flight” and our bodies are preparing us to do so. When we become stressed our bodies immediately release acid into our stomachs to shut down digestion. Acid is also released into our skin so we don’t taste as good to that Saber Tooth Tiger that’s chasing us. Adrenaline and cortisol are released to provide strength and energy (these same chemicals allow us to lift a car off of a child). So these responses were at one time very adaptive. They allowed us to respond quickly to threatening situations and to survive. The problem is that this system which was once adaptive has become maladaptive and although we are no longer being chased by dinosaurs, our bodies respond to stress the same way regardless of the kind of threat. Additionally we rarely ever actually launch into Fight or Flight so there is no where for those chemicals to go, there is no release. This is way we are wound so tight by the end of the day. Most of our “threats” today are not life-threatening, they are work related, family, emails, finances, traffic, relationships. Still these stressors cause the chemicals in our bodies to build up and we need a release. Many people find release at the gym, yoga, and other healthy ways to burn off the stress chemicals. Others turn to drugs and alcohol and other unhealthy behaviors.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a way to reduce those stress chemicals from accruing in the first place and not have to wait until the end of the day and run 20 miles just to keep from losing our minds? What if I told you that there was a way to not only reduce those chemicals from producing in your brain but you can actually increase the release of your “happy” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, GABA and endorphins? Well, I am. You can. With meditation.

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Happy

Thousands of evidence based studies have been done that confirm what spiritual leaders and ancients have known for centuries. Meditation produces immediate effects when it comes to combatting stress. Twenty minutes of silent or guided meditation 2 times a day can create immediate benefits that help us to reduce stress BEFORE these chemicals ever build up. http://eocinstitute.org/meditation/dhea_gaba_cortisol_hgh_melatonin_serotonin_endorphins/

And all it takes is the commitment to making it happen. It doesn’t take experience, or training (although working with someone experienced in meditation can be very helpful), or any special tools. All it takes is your commitment to daily practice. That’s it. Boom- your stressed is reduced.

Now I know what you’re saying…”I don’t have 20 minutes twice a day to meditate”. Ok, well first I would say you probably do, but I’m not going to argue because it raises my stress. So how about 10 minutes twice a day? Or 5 minutes twice a day? The most important thing about meditation is your commitment to making it happen. It is less important what happens during your meditation than it is that you are doing it. DOING it is the most important part. And there are endless ways to get started.

 

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Alters can add a sense of reverence.

First, decide that you are going to make a commitment to daily meditation practice and set that intention. Find a time that works for you and if all you can find is 5 minutes a day, then start there. Set an alarm ( I used a kitchen timer for the first 6 months) for 5 minutes and sit however you are comfortable. There is no need to sit an any special position. You may develop a “proper” sitting posture over time but it is not necessary to begin. Be comfortable. Next, sit. Be still and bring your attention to your breath coming in and going out. That’s it. Breathe naturally and keep your concentration on your breath. Allow your mind do whatever it does and when you notice your mind has begun making a shopping list or thinking about what to have for dinner simply acknowledge the thought and gently return your attention to your breath. A common misconception about meditation is that our minds are supposed to clear, get quiet and stop. This may be possible after an extended time of daily practice but for most people it is not. Our minds wander constantly and that’s ok, that is just what minds do. Be aware of judgment. We tend to judge ourselves before, during and after meditation. Your mind may tell you all kinds of things like: “ I’m bored”, “I’m uncomfortable”, “I don’t know what Im doing”. It’s ok, do it anyway. Your mind may tell you to stop 3 minutes in, it’s ok, keep going. What you will learn is that it is possible to have thoughts and then let them go. It is possible to be centered and relaxed even when the mind is chattering away. We can observe thoughts and not attach to them or judge them. The average person has between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day. Be easy with yourself and adopt a gentle attitude of curiosity. “ Hmmm …my mind is saying this? Interesting”…then bring attention gently back to the breath. It’s all good.

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Total candle freak.

There is a vast about of information on the web about different meditation practices. There are guided meditations, mindfulness meditations, Buddhist meditations, mystic meditations traditional faith meditations, Mantra meditations, Vipassana, Zen, Vedic, Transcendental, the list goes on. Don’t get too caught up in finding the “right” one. There is no “right” one. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Begin with what feels right to you. Keep it simple. Lighting a candle and burning some incense may increase your enjoyment and concentration but it is not necessary. I have developed my own practice over a period of about 3 years and I consider it to be one of the most important aspects to my spiritual program and my way of life. Meditation has influenced every part of my life for the better. Sometimes my practice feels on point and sometimes I’m all over the place, but the results I see in my daily life are undeniable.

One final suggestion. Keep your meditation practice sacred. Once you find what works for you don’t share it with the world. It’s yours; treasure it, nurture it and allow it to grow. The benefits of meditation are limitless.

Namaste,

JimmyT