The average person’s brain is like a 24-7 Twitter feed that tweets about 70,000 thoughts per day.
What and how we think are important because they become primary drivers for our feelings, beliefs, and actions. Our thoughts have the power to motivate us, uplift others, solve problems, learn new ideas, and become a positive change in the world. But, too often, we cruise along on autopilot, allowing our minds to loop into unconscious thinking patterns that create negative emotions like fear, anger, unworthiness, anxiety, and depression. I’ve heard people refer to this endless mind chatter as squirrels, hamsters, gremlins, monsters, little people, and my personal favorite, the hag and the nag.
A person’s thought life is shaped by many factors including genetics, early experiences, and relationships. In fact, by the time a child is five, their developing brain's architecture becomes an operating grid for all future learning. Core beliefs form and set the stage for an understanding of self and the world. This is why attachment and early trauma have incredible impact on a person’s thought and emotional wellbeing.
The brain-body stress response
In addition, a growing body of research supports the notion that on an unconscious level, the brain’s default mode has a negative bias that scans for the bad and skims over the good. This evolved from an old survival pattern that originates in the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain designed to sound the alarm when it senses danger.
Our thoughts can trick us into believing all kinds of scary stuff because the amygdala and limbic system don’t know the difference between real and imagined threats. Worrying about possible future events and ruminating over the past are both significant causes of anxiety and depression. The neuro-biological sequencing that begins with a single thought can spiral us into hyperarousal in a matter of seconds.
It goes down like this: The amygdala sends out a message to release cortisol and adrenalin into the bloodstream. The sympathetic nervous system fires up and floods the body with physiological responses including a rapid heart beat, uneven breathing, and tensed muscles. Logical thinking goes off line; we are prepared to fight or run -- all from our thoughts. Here’s the big bummer: neural pathways continue to expand around these negative brain-body experiences so the responses become even more automatic over time.
Challenging unhealthy thoughts
One day I took a young client outside to the busy street in front of our office. Though only six years old, she suffered from severe anxiety. While we sat on the curb near a busy intersection, I had her imagine that the cars were her thoughts. We didn’t know where they were going or why. Some were driving slowly, others speeding. A few even made u-turns. I asked her to think what might happen if she got in the cars without checking the destination. Where would she end up? Far away from family and friends? In danger? Lost? It became clear that in order to be happy and safe she would need to choose wisely.
In therapy we coach children, teens, and adults about the importance of noticing, naming, and accepting their thoughts. At first, this is often met with resistance, because it can bring about feelings of shame, anger, judgment, or criticism. It’s vulnerable but important healing work for clients to have a safe place to untangle their thought life. A big shift happens when they are able to understand that their thoughts are not facts but a mix of ideas, opinions, beliefs, and perceptions. Because they had been wired and fired into their brain’s neural networks for so long they were the default.
By self-compassionately challenging their thoughts, clients gain a new perspective. They don’t have to be a captive audience to negative thinking traps. Once clients learn to recognize and name what they hear as unhelpful, they can make different choices about what and how to think. Choosing healthy responses is a lifetime practice. There is no perfect; the only goal is making progress.
Benefits of Meditation
One healthy practice we advocate is mindfulness meditation. By quieting the mind and body, you are better able to regulate your emotions, reducing reactivity, stress, and anxiety. It’s as simple as taking three to five minutes a day to pause, breathe, and reconnect with the part of you that feels lost in the shuffle. When practicing meditation:
• Your heart rate and breathing slow down.
• Your blood pressure normalizes
• You use oxygen more efficiently
• Your immune function improves
• You sweat less
• Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol
• Your mind ages at a slower rate
• Your mind clears and your creativity increases
Click below to listen to this 12 minute mindfulness meditation: "Taming Your Inner Critic."