If you’re lucky, it’s less often than all the time.
Why You Have A Negative Brain
I’ve seen estimates that somewhere around 60 to 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. And if that weren’t bad enough, most of our thoughts are repetitive. I’ve read as high as 98 percent. That’s a lot of negativity.
Your brain is naturally negative. This trait, called negativity bias, actually began as an evolutionary advantage. Your brain’s top priority is always your survival, not your happiness. It’s constantly scanning the environment looking for signs of danger, ready to activate reflexes and secrete hormones and neurochemicals preparing you to fight or flee. Your brain learns from and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. Bad memories even get stored differently.
Interrupting Negative Thought Patterns
So, how do you put a stop to the constant negative chatter and find some peace and happiness when even your brain is working against you? You have to intentionally become aware of and work with your thoughts. That’s how.
You can’t control the random thoughts that pop into your head. That’s impossible and trying to do that leads to its own kind of suffering. However, you do have control over how you respond to those thoughts. Instead of unconsciously going wherever your mind wants to take you — usually down the dark rabbit hole — you can consciously take control of and guide your mind in a different direction by working with your thoughts.
Here are five ways to do that.
Byron Katie’s “The Work”
Byron Katie’s The Work is phenomenal for helping you interrupt and analyze your thoughts. The Work consists of four questions and a turnaround. The questions are:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
After you’ve analyzed a situation with the four questions, you turn it around. Each turn around is an opportunity for you to consider and experience the opposite of your original statement. Katie says the turnarounds are the prescription for happiness. I have used this successfully for many distressing situations and thoughts in my own life – some small and some not so small. It always brings relief and helps me understand how my thinking biases are causing me pain.
Jeffrey Schwartz’ 4Rs Thought Reframing
Jeffrey Schwartz’s four-step therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder works for changing any thought patterns. The practice is outlined in detail in his book Brain Lock and has become an established therapeutic treatment for OCD. When I was originally learning to change my whole way of thinking and being, I had reminders of the four steps posted everywhere — on my refrigerator, in my meditation corner, on my bathroom mirror, and even on the dashboard of my car. Now, I know the steps by heart and just run through them when I need to reframe my thinking.
The four steps, which are really just a formula for applied mindfulness, involve learning to focus your attention and modify your thinking in beneficial ways that support and empower you. Over time and with repetition, the process changes your brain physically and operationally through neuroplasticity.
The Four Steps are:
- Relabel – Become aware of and identify deceptive brain messages and uncomfortable sensations.
- Reframe – Change your perception of the importance of deceptive brain messages.
- Refocus – In the first two steps, you clear your cognitive field. Then, you focus your attention in the moment in the direction you want to go and consciously do something constructive.
- Revalue – When you complete the first three steps regularly, the fourth step begins to happen almost automatically as the result of new thinking patterns. This is where you reassess the value of the thought.
The Emotional Guidance Scale
Abraham-Hicks has an emotional guidance scale, from the book Ask and It Is Given by Ester and Jerry Hicks, which ranges from Joy/Appreciation/Empowered/Freedom/Love being at the top as the best with Fear/Grief/Depression/Despair/Powerlessness at the very bottom. The idea is to determine where you are on the emotional scale about something and, then, choose a thought that is higher on the scale promoting better feelings and a greater sense of peace. It doesn’t work to try to go from the bottom all the way to the top instantly. It doesn’t feel believable — well because it’s not. The idea is to choose something believable which makes you feel a little bit better about a situation and takes you a few notches up the scale. From there, you reach for more better thoughts and feelings and keep moving up the scale.
- Let’s say you’re feeling discouraged which is number sixteen on the scale and you’re thinking ” I got laid off three months ago. I haven’t heard back from any of the jobs I’ve applied for. I’m never going to find a job.”
- You want to reach for a thought with a feeling a little higher up the scale: maybe frustration at number ten with the thought “I just need someone – anybody to give me a chance.”
- Then, after you sit with that thought for a while, you might reach for a better feeling thought, such as hopefulness at number six with the thought “It only takes one person and one opportunity to turn this around.”
Abraham-Hicks is a group consciousness from the non-physical dimension channeled through Esther Hicks. Abraham-Hicks has a worldwide, sometimes cult-like following with seminars, retreats, and cruises. Although I never “drank the Kool-Aid” and become immersed in the philosophy, I do find some of the teachings beneficial.
Just “Let It Be”
You don’t have to fight with your thoughts, make them go away, or do anything with them at all if you don’t want to. One strategy to effectively work with them is just to let them be. Accept them, and don’t give them any more of your attention than necessary.
Accepting the thoughts is not the same thing as agreeing with or believing them. To accept them means to just let them exist without investing meaning or importance in them, or judging them or yourself for having the thoughts. Mindfully observe the thoughts and realize they really have nothing to do with who you are. They are just thoughts –some electrical impulses in your brain. They only have as much power as you give them.
When you try to let thoughts go, you have to turn your attention and energy to those pesky things. In your brain, because of neuroplasticity, what you repetitively focus on changes your brain causing neuronal pathways to form and strengthen. The stronger the connections are in your brain — the more you engage in the thoughts you’re trying to “let go.” And the more you engage in the thinking pattern, the more firmly the thoughts get wired into your brain.
It’s a feedback loop. In other words,
To try to let thoughts go also asks you to actively do something with them. This kind of thinking always causes struggle and pain. It’s the opposite of acceptance and mindfully working with “what is.”
I’ve heard it explained with the following analogy. Imagine that the thoughts are unwanted guests that show up at your house one night when you’re throwing a dinner party. Like any good host, you open the door when the doorbell rings to find them standing there. You don’t have to be ugly, slam the door, and make a scene. That would disrupt the party and your mood. They’re already there. Let them come in. However, you don’t have to spend your time and energy making sure they’re comfortable, refreshing their drinks, and making polite chit-chat with them. They’re just there. Hanging out. Ho-hum. They’re not interesting or worthy of your attention.
Pair Positive With Negative
Another way to work with a troublesome thought is to pair a better feeling thought with it.
Your mind is like a garden. If you don’t weed your garden regularly, random plants will sprout up. Without any maintenance, the weeds will hungrily take over choking out the healthy plants and flowers. With regular practice, you can learn to pull the weeds and plant pleasing flowers in the garden of your mind.
In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:
To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background. Imagine that the positive contents of your awareness are sinking down into old wounds, soothing chafed and bruised places like a warm golden salve, filling up hollows, slowly replacing negative feelings and beliefs with positive ones.
Hanson suggests that we become aware of and familiar with the recurring thoughts that cause upsets and problems for us. To continue with the garden analogy, you have to find the root of the weed. Once you do, you need to infuse positive material, the weed killer, onto it. You don’t want to resist painful memories and negative thoughts because that leads to its own kind of struggle. The goal is to pair and eventually replace the dark material with more positive memories and thinking,
The more positive thoughts actually get stored with the negative ones because each time you recall a memory, its synaptic pattern is altered. Over time, through neuroplasticity, this practice will actually change your brain building new pathways – and beautiful, healthy gardens. For more information, read Pulling Weeds and Planting Flowers in Your Mind.
The point of these tools is to allow you to work with your thoughts to then consciously choose how you want to feel, think, behave, and proceed in any situation. Working with your thoughts and guiding your mind puts you in control of your life. You never have complete control of what happens around you and never will, but you can control and choose what you say to yourself about what happens.
These practices, over time and with repetition through experience-dependent neuroplasticity will actually, physically change your brain so that more positive thinking and calm responding become easier and even the default mode. Rick Hanson, in his book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time says: