Trauma and habit can 'lock in' unhelpful patterns of thinking, almost as an automatic response. Counsellor Nichola Marsonet shows you how to put a stop to them, once and for all.
When Shakespeare created Hamlet, writing, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," he was eerily close to the truth. There was no brain imaging in those days to show how the brain works but, cleverly, Shakespeare had observed how negative thoughts can hugely influence how people feel. Now, when neuroscientists can examine in minute detail how thoughts and feelings intertwine, we know just how much our thoughts affect how we feel and act.
Researchers have found links between negative thinking patterns and mental health issues, such as depression. Professor Beck, an American psychologist, discovered over 50 years ago that people suffering depression are flooded with negative thoughts they aren’t aware of thinking. He termed these automatic thoughts and we now know these thoughts occur frequently in our minds during the day. Automatic thoughts that are mostly negative really bring down our mood.
Harnessing the power of automatic thoughts and how they affect us has become the bedrock of the Positive Psychology movement, a branch of emotional wellbeing pioneered by American researcher Martin Seligman. Positive Psychology works on the power of positive thinking and how this can lead us to feel happier about ourselves and about our lives, helping us act in ways that bring joy and feelings of empowerment.
The first step in dealing with unhelpful thoughts is to stop them being automatic and unconscious. We need to notice our thoughts when they happen - which can be difficult at first as many of us have ignored our automatic thoughts since we first had them!
Tip: Set the alarm on your phone every two hours. When it goes off, gently bring awareness to your thoughts. Simply notice what you were thinking without trying to change those thoughts. After a few days, thoughts will become more conscious and less automatic.
Push the positives
Research tells us that people suffering from low mood have great difficulty retrieving positive memories. They can give exhaustive lists of everything bad that has happened but, according to researchers Chris Williams and Anne Garland, they find it impossible to think of anything positive. This means that much greater, deliberate effort needs to be put into noticing and remembering positive moments in life.
Tip: When any positive moment happens, take a photo. This isn’t to be put on social media for comment; it’s simply to provide the ability to store positive memories outside of the brain where they can be retrieved more easily. At the end of each day, check over your catalogue of lovely moments so you can ease into sleep with greater positivity.
Watch your language!
Words such as 'must,' 'have to,' and 'should' immediately affect the levels of stress hormones we produce, making us stressed and anxious. How we use language to form thoughts can profoundly affect us – either positively or negatively. Notice how often your thoughts contain words that put unreasonable pressure onto you. Words such as 'must,' 'have to,' and 'should' immediately affect the levels of stress hormones we produce, making us feel stressed and anxious.
Tip: Practise noticing when you use harsh words and try to replace them with softer ones such as, “I would like to ...”
A thought chat
Funny though it sounds, having a conversation with your automatic thoughts can be helpful. That's because many of our automatic thoughts are not really rational: they can be highly emotive, and at times just plain wrong. For example, you smile at a friend across the road who completely ignores you. You feel snubbed and think, “She hates me!" The truth is your friend didn't have her glasses on and didn't see you.
Tip: Don't just accept your thoughts as true. Try checking in with them and ask if they are true and helpful. Think about other more reasonable explanations for what happened.
Humans very naturally group and label events, people and issues in an attempt to better understand the world. However, labels can also be automatic thoughts and can be extremely unhelpful in creating assumptions we come to later take as facts. As the Western Australian Centre for Clinical Interventions anxiety resource ‘Panic Stations’ describes, “We may label an event even though there are many more examples that aren’t consistent with this label.” And when we try to label people, ideas and ourselves into categories that don’t fit, we almost certainly cause stress and pain.
Tip: Practise learning to see events and people’s behaviour as just one incident that rarely defines the ‘total package.’ If you make a mistake, it doesn’t make you hopeless; it’s a single mistake and not a hopeless catalogue of errors.
Live, not think
Sometimes unhelpful thoughts are best dealt with by not thinking at all – just for a while! Mindfulness is a concept that helps us to live in the present moment rather than living in our heads with thoughts that often push us into the future or back into our past. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the world’s experts in mindfulness that he describes as “the art of conscious living.” It’s an art that temporarily stops lots of negative thoughts streaming through our brains.
Tip: The Black Dog Institute (www.blackdoginstitute.org.au) suggests the practice of mindful walking. As you walk, feel the ground underfoot and consider how it feels to walk on. Let your attention wander to what surrounds you. Focus on the scenery, other people nearby, and enjoy the simplicity of the moment.
Fake the face
When times are tough and thoughts turn negative, along comes a frown and a drooping mouth. We don’t just think and feel down - we look down. Even if we don’t happen to look in a mirror, our facial expressions' feedback to our brain makes us think we feel bad and makes the cycle of negativity worse.
Tip: The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that we can feel emotion derived from our facial expressions. If we smile even if we are thinking negatively, we actually feel happier. So even if it’s not a great day, as the saying goes: “Fake it till you make it!”