What if I told you that you can control your thoughts? That you can actually rewire your brain? Thoughts are not these uncontrollable wispy clouds that pop into our head that we are slaves to. They are real, tangible things we can master. Let me explain.
For most of my life I’ve suffered because my negative thoughts were free to run around unchecked. I missed out on so much life, so much joy, and so many opportunities. Fear, anxiety, insecurities, depression, perfectionism, pride, etc. shaped who I was. I thought I was just a depressed person and always would be. I loathed those people who said that happiness was a choice. Maybe perfect people had that choice, but not me. I have always struggled with my weight, I never thought I was pretty enough or smart enough, I felt socially awkward and didn’t fit in, and I was never particularly healthy and fit, always struggling with health issues. I thought I had a lot of reasons to hate myself and not be happy. I didn’t deserve to be happy like all the carefree beautiful healthy people... You see where my negative thoughts were taking me? It seems illogically and shallow when I write it out, but somehow my mind turned these into valid reasons and I just accepted them as fact.
Oh how I wish I knew then what I know now! My heart hurts looking back at all the horrible things I thought and did to myself. I’m tearing up writing this because I remember how much pain I was in. After all it was only just a year or so ago that I started to figure out that I had been deceived my entire life. I wasn’t a depressed person. I was just allowing deceptive brain messages (thoughts, urges, and desires) to run my life. Like an evil alter ego whispering in my ear and believing every word she said. I couldn’t see the substance of my thought life. I thought they were intangible, uncontrollable wisps of who I was.
Guess what our thoughts are tangible, they are real, and that means we can grasp them and control them. Sounds like crazy talk right? Are our brains real tangible objects? Yep! Guess where our thoughts come from? Our brains! Our thoughts come from our frontal cortex (executive center,) hypothalamus (drive center,) amygdala (fear assessment center,) insula (gut response center,) anterior cingulate (oh sh*t! center) (the later three combined makes up the uh oh center,) and the basal ganglia (habit center.) No, you don’t need brain surgery to rewire your brain. You just need to have a basic understanding of how it works.
When you’re triggered by a situation the frontal cortex and/or hypothalamus activates and says there is an issue, it then activates the amygdala, the insula, and/or the anterior cingulate who assess the threat (causing the sensation that something is wrong or off.) Then the basal ganglia kicks in which is responsible for your automatic thoughts and actions. When you act on the automatic response the frontal cortex records it and creates a feedback loop that enforces and strengthens the automatic response so that it is even more automatic.
Here’s an illustration for you:
You get triggered, your brain sends you an automatic negative or deceptive message (that it has learned) in response, you start to feel uncomfortable or distressed, then you automatically go to a coping mechanism (that you have learned) that temporarily relieves the uncomfortable sensation. That creates a feedback loop that re-enforces that message and the instinct toward the coping mechanism.
These automatic negative thoughts or self-limiting beliefs are formed over our lifetime. A lot of them stem from our childhood. They are messages we observe, hear, and experience repeatedly. Body image issues, perfectionism, unachievable expectations, comparing ourselves to others, etc. We all have self-limiting beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. They aren’t real rules or laws to live by, yet we make them so when we believe them.
Your thoughts as I’ve said previously are real and tangible. Not only are they physically in your brain, but they result in very real, tangible life impacts. Here’s an example. If you have an automatic negative thought or belief regarding your weight and body image, then that will lead to an action, which is usually an unhealthy coping mechanism like stress or binge eating. The more you eat, the more weight you gain, the more unhealthy you are, the more your life is impacted and limited, and the more you feel bad about yourself, and the thought and resulting action gets stronger and stronger the longer the cycle continues, until you are stuck in a feedback loop feeling powerless to escape it.
However, we can learn to release these thoughts and beliefs and choose different beliefs for ourselves, stopping the deceptive messages, the yucky sensations, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms.
4-Step Method to Rewire Your Brain
I think it’s important to shift your perspective of how you 'see' your thoughts. They are real and you need to 'see' them for what they are. Here is a visualization I like to use in conjunction with the 4-step method above:
Imagine that you are standing in an empty room and you begin to experience one of your automatic thoughts. It feels like someone or something is standing right behind you whispering it in your ear and you have a creepy, uncomfortable, distressing feeling that makes you recoil. The instinct is to run away to one of your coping mechanisms. But this time you don’t. You take a deep breath and turn around to face whatever is behind you. Use your imagination to create an avatar of that thought. A monster, an alter ego of yourself, the person who helped create that thought, a cartoon devil, or whatever comes to your mind that helps you compartmentalize that thought into a single physical entity. Then you are going to muster your courage, defiantly look that entity in the eye, and slap a label on its forehead. Create a label to discredit it, mock it, or shame it that calls it out for what it really is and what is actually true. Then re-frame and reject it by changing up the vision. When you envision a big scary monster in women’s lingerie it’s not so scary anymore. You are essentially calling its bluff and laughing at it so that it loses its power over you. (Remember the scene from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" where they are learning about boggarts? Boggarts appear as what you fear the most. To repel and over power them you have turn them into something ridiculous and laugh at them.) Tell it to shut up and go away, then watch it scurry away into a dark corner. Turn around and think about what you would usually do after a negative thought encounter. Stress eating? Bingeing TV all day? Isolating yourself? Acknowledge your coping mechanisms without judgement and then choose to do something healthy instead. Re-focus on something positive. Go for a walk, play with your kids or your pets, listen to music, or whatever makes you feel happy and healthy. Commit yourself to stopping, acknowledging, confronting, and discrediting your automatic thoughts every time they pop up.
You will be surprised at how quickly those thoughts stop coming once you start confronting them. It’s putting a stop to the feedback loop and redirecting it to positive, health actions and thoughts.
I believe the first step to changing your life starts in your mental body system. Separating out our emotions, our spirituality, and how we physically feel from our thought life is important. Our minds are powerful things! Intentionally shift your perspective to ‘see’ your thoughts as real things that you can categorize, move around, and control. It’s difficult to manipulate something that doesn’t have a substance that you can touch, but thankfully we have super powerful brains that can use our imaginations to add substance to thoughts that were previously hard to grasp. I love to visualize my thought life using metaphors. It helps my brain make transitions much more easily. Like moving pieces on a chess board, or flipping a switch, or putting my thoughts in jars with labels and organizing them on a shelf. I admit it can be an oversimplification of complex issues, but sometimes simple is all you need to make the shift in the right direction.
I have a long history of treating myself very poorly. When I made the conscious decision to love my whole self instead of hating myself I visualized a switch labeled love and hate and I flipped the switch to love. Anytime I come up against a choice to love or hate myself I see the switch in my mind and remember I chose to love myself and I will continue to make choices that reflect that. By doing that my other body systems began to move into alignment. My depression lessened, I felt more spiritually connected, and I started to manifest improvements to my physical health. I was in a much better position to initiate life changes once the initial mental shift happened.
This is also important when we have to decipher what we can and can’t control in our life. (See my blog article Finding Control When Your Life is Out of Control.) Visualizing the Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence can help save the frustration of trying to change things we can’t change. I see the issue in my mind and ask myself if I can change it or influence it. If I cannot do a darn thing about it I visualize sticking it in my Circle of Concern and walking away. If I can change or influence it I visualize sticking it in my Circle of Influence and start listing the options I can act on. Once all the options are checked off the list and there’s nothing else I can do, I visualize moving it to my Circle of Concern and moving on. It saves me a ton of needless anxiety and makes me feel more in control of my life. I’m less reactive and more proactive.
I’m by no means perfect at all this. I’m still learning and making tweaks and changes to how I go about things. I’ve always been terrible at discipline, so keeping at things and forming new habits is tough. I fail a lot! But I’ve also succeeded more than I ever thought could. I’m amazed at my own transformation and how far I’ve come in such a short period of time. Previously being one of the most cynical people ever, I would always roll my eyes at articles like this. Thinking "it’s not that easy! It’s not a choice! You’re so full of it!" Starting this journey I had no expectation that any of this would work, just a spark of hope that it could. Now having seen the results in my own life and getting feedback from people around me on how much I’ve changed I’m a believer and I’m glad I took a chance on changing my life. So if you’re anything like the old me I challenge you to give this a decent shot as you might be pleasantly surprised like I was. As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
It’s a powerful thing once you learn to harness your mind and understand how it works. Everyone is unique, so what works for me might not be what works for you. So explore your own mind and see what will work for you. We are not slaves to our thoughts unless we allow ourselves to be. Mastering your thoughts is easier the more you do it. We will always have new issues popping up and old issues resurfacing, but if you have the right tools and skills in place you will have the power to control them, not have them control you.
If you’d like personal guidance on mastering your thoughts I’d love to help you! Schedule your free consultation with me today.
Want to learn more? Here are some references I used for this article:
You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey M. Schwartz & Rebecca Gladding MD
The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns