Manage your thoughts and beliefs
As we have seen in negative thoughts and beliefs, having habitual negative thoughts can lead to negative feelings, which over time can lead to mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, insomnia, etc.
It is therefore important to manage these thoughts and the beliefs that can lead to these thoughts, as they will influence our feelings and our mental health.
There are many tools and techniques we can use to manage our thoughts and beliefs, and therefore influence our feelings.
Developing a regular meditation and mindfulness practice is one of the most effective ways to help you manage your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.
- Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are
- Meditation is a practice which can help you develop mindfulness
Benefits of meditation and mindfulness
A regular meditation and mindfulness practice can allow us to
- Become aware of our thoughts, belief systems, and feelings, which is the first step towards managing them
- Step back from reflexive negative thinking, allowing us to gain perspective on our thoughts and beliefs, and question these
- We can detach from our thoughts, seeing them simply as mental events which come and go in our mind, like clouds, rather than taking them literally and believing that they are true
- Once we identify these as thoughts, rather than facts, we take away their power
- Helps us differentiate between thoughts about the facts, and the facts themselves, which helps us to accept life the way it is, rather than the way we want it to be
- Press the pause button between having negative thoughts and beliefs, and acting on them, thereby preventing negative actions
- Calm our nervous system, and a calmer nervous system can help reduce negative thinking (and conversely, negative thoughts can activate our nervous system)
- See the link between our thoughts and our feelings: how our thoughts generate our feelings
- This can help us to become aware of thoughts that can cause feelings of depression and low mood, or anxiety
- Which can help us distinguish between helpful thoughts, and unhelpful, damaging ones Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 165.
Mind body therapies can help us to:
- Balance and calm the nervous system and hormonal system, which in turn can help prevent negative thinking, which can often be triggered by stress
- Gain perspective on our thoughts and belief systems, refocussing us on our bodies, and away from our overactive minds.
One of the most effective ways of managing negative thoughts and beliefs is through mental therapy. Whether through self-therapy or working with a practitioner, mental therapy can help us to:
- Become aware of our negative thoughts and beliefs, and understand how these can lead to negative feelings, and destructive actions
- Understand where these beliefs come from (our parents, or childhood trauma, for example), and how we can reframe our belief systems and thought patterns so that we are less prone to reflexive negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours
- Having a sense of purpose can help our lives feel useful, meaningful and fulfilling, which in turn can reduce negative thoughts and beliefs
- Having a spiritual practice can help us gain perspective on our negative thoughts and beliefs, by putting them in a wider context
- Spirituality, in whatever form, usually encourages the focus on positive thoughts such as love, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, which are all antidotes to negative thinking
- Being part of a community, whether spiritual or not, can help us to feel supported, connected and loved, which in turn can calm our nervous system, encourage positive emotions and reduce negative thoughts and beliefs
Connecting with nature and natural light can help us to:
- Balance our hormones and calm our nervous system, which can reduce negative thought patterns
- Give us a wider perspective on our lives, putting it in a larger context, and can help us get out of ourselves and our negative thinking
- Connect with our bodies and our senses, and get away from reflexive thought patterns
Negative thinking can be driven by biochemical imbalances – imbalances in neurotransmitters (eg: serotonin, dopamine, gaba, etc…) and hormones. As we have seen, these biochemical imbalances can be driven by nutritional imbalances.
A way to improve negative thought patterns and beliefs can be to improve your nutrition and supplement, in order to make sure that you have the correct building blocks for optimal brain chemistry, which will help encourage good moods and peace, and reduce negative thoughts.
Another contributor to neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances which can lead to negative thinking can be gut issues.
Following steps to heal your gut can help restore neurotransmitter and hormonal balance, which in turn can improve your mood, stress resilience and reduce negative thoughts.
A heavy toxic load can cause neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances.
Making sure to avoid toxins and optimise detoxification can be very helpful in restoring healthy brain chemicals and hormones for better moods and a more balanced nervous system, which in turn can reduce negative thinking.
Exercise can help boost feel-good brain chemicals such as endorphins, calm the nervous system, and help us connect to our bodies and get away from our overactive, ruminating minds, thus helping us to manage negative thought patterns.
Spending too much time online, on our phones, on our computers, on social media can increase negative thoughts, and cause stress and low mood.
- We can get caught up in negative thoughts by comparing ourselves unfavourably on social media, thinking everyone else is happier and healthier than we are
- Our minds can be overstimulated by 24/7 access to information and other people, which can lead to stress and negative thought patterns
In order to manage negative thinking, it is imperative to manage our technology and social media use.
Getting enough sleep is vital to helping us manage our negative thinking. Chronically getting less than 7 hours of quality sleep a night can cause biochemical reactions such as inflammation, hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, which can exacerbate and cause negative thinking.
In order to manage negative thinking it is imperative to optimise your sleep.
Negative thought patterns are often habits. You can develop new mental habits.
Habits are actions which become unconscious after being repeated over time in a conscious way.
Thoughts can become habits, firmly wired into our brains, so that negative thoughts can become reflexes.
When we change our thoughts, we make physical changes to the chemical structure of our brain. No matter how old we are, we can change our thought patterns and habits due to neuroplasticity.
Here are some guidelines on how to change habitual thinking:
Become aware of your thoughts
- Practicing mindfulness is a good way of doing this
- Practise noticing and observing your thoughts
Question your thoughts
- Be sceptical of fixed reactions and thoughts, both yours and others’
- Confront old conditioning, as it can lead to unconscious behaviour
- Examine your core beliefs, and discard those which lead to unhelpful thoughts and behaviour
- Practice empathy, looking at things through the eyes of others’ Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, p. 84.
Decide to change your thoughts
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. London: William Heinemann, pp. 76-8.
- For instance identify the thought habit “I will always be alone” (this process is called “routine” thinking)
- Identify the trigger to that thought habits — is there a recurring situation, person or emotion that triggers that thought? (this is called “the cue”)
- Then replace that thought with a better one such as “I may feel alone, but I am surrounded by many wonderful people who love me”
- Then give yourself a reward such as expressing gratitude for the wonderful people in your life (this is “the reward”)
- If you repeat this cycle enough times, your new positive thought will become a habit
- It is not easy in the beginning, but keep focussing on the long term reward, and be patient, as habits take time to break
- You can also try to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones
- For instance, the fear of change can be reframed as excitement – the unknown is where potential lives, and it’s full of possibilities Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, pp. 84-94.
Depression is often caused by external circumstances such as social isolation, chronic disease, unemployment.
- Depression can come from responding to these circumstances (over which we may have no control) in an unhealthy or unexamined (unhelpful, overly negative thoughts)
- A longstanding habit that becomes automatic (once you have a depressed response, it reinforces the next response when you face a new stimulus) Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, p. 61.
- Depression forges a chemical connection in the brain between negative, depressed thoughts, so, once you’ve had one episode of depression, you’re more likely to become depressed again
Tackling depression must be done consciously, as undoing the ingrained depressed response requires re-training the brain.
- Brain scans of sufferers of depression show a unique pattern in which some parts of the brain are underactive and others are overactive
- The key is to get the blocked parts of your brain moving again, and altering your thought patterns can be a way of doing this Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, p. 61.
In order to effectively tackle depression, external contributors need to be addressed, and then we must re-wire the automatic depressed response
- If your automatic response is associated with sadness, helplessness and hopelessness, refuse to accept it
- Give yourself a moment, take a deep breath, and refer to the list of alternative responses.
- This new response will take time but it will slowly produce new neural pathways in the brain
- Depression creates the illusion that your power has been stripped away, and this approach shows us that behind the automatic depressive response, lies your core self that can direct the healing process
- Practicing “Radical acceptance” can prevent us from becoming increasingly shut down and diminished when faced with painful experiences
- Instead, it allows us to stay open and fully experience the wide spectrum of emotions and life, even when things seem unbearable Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 158.
- Focus on the physicality of difficult experience, which can cause a shift in perception Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 159.
- Difficult emotions in themselves are not necessarily a threat, but our aversion to them can become a damaging habit
- Repressed emotions are linked to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol Brown, L. L., Tomarken, A. J., Orth, D. N., Loosen, P. T., Kalin, N. H. and Davidson, R. J. (1996). Individual differences in repressive-defensiveness predict basal salivary cortisol levels. [online] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (2), pp. 362-71. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8636888 [accessed 12 Sept. 2017].
- Approaching difficult experiences mindfully will not eradicate painful feelings and sensations, as pain is inevitable, however it can reduce suffering, and increase awareness of what is causing this pain
- This gives us the power of choice, as we can make a conscious decision to remain open to the unpleasant and painful thoughts and feelings rather than avoiding them as is our habit Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 160.
- Practicing mindfulness will not take the pain away, however awareness of the present moment is bigger than any pain
Consciously practicing gratitude can help you change negative thought patterns, appreciate what you have, and allow you to see situations in a new light, with new solutions. Practicing gratitude has been shown to calm the nervous system.
Benefits of a gratitude practice
Expressing gratitude has many positive outcomes, both emotional and physical. A regular gratitude practise allows us to take control of our negative thought patterns, turn them around, and avoid their damaging effects on our behaviour and biochemistry
- Deeper and more relaxing sleep
- Positive emotions and uplifted mood
- Better, more loving relationships
- Stronger immune system
- Less depression
- Less anxiety and panic
Make gratitude a habit
- Each day, write down three things for which you are grateful in a special gratitude journal, or a diary
- Schedule a regular time to do this, ideally at the same time every day — maybe just before you go to sleep for instance
- Be flexible however, and don’t not practice because you missed your window
- You can create a variety of ways to practice gratitude, and alternate — for instance you could sing a song, make a gratitude jar, call a friend, make a collage etc.
- Be specific: for example, instead of saying: ‘I’m grateful for my family’ everyday, say: ‘Today my kids and I had a really great conversation in the car and I forgot how stressed I am at work.’
- Try to notice new things every day
- There are apps you can use to make it easier to remember to practice gratitude and to introduce new activities and inspiration
- Write letters, send cards, make a phone call to tell your friends and family how grateful you are for them
- Social relationships are one of our biggest sources of joy, so blending the two activities (social, gratitude) makes sense
Keeping a journal can be a good way of checking in with yourself, and becoming aware of your thoughts, beliefs and feelings.
Benefits of journaling
If you are prone to racing thoughts, anxiety, depression, or feeling numb, writing in a journal can help you in many ways:
- To become aware of your thoughts, beliefs and feelings
- To become aware of the thought and feeling triggers for your subsequent actions and reactions
- It provides a safe, private and controlled environment to let yourself express your thoughts and feelings
- To resist the urge to numb or repress your feelings, which can exacerbate depression and other mental health issues
- Mental disengagement from a stressful experience results in higher levels of cortisol Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p. 93.. Therefore it is healthier to become aware of, and manage unpleasant feelings rather than avoiding or ignoring them
- As Marie Forleo says “you have to feel it to heal it’
There are certain techniques you can try for writing in your journal:
- Set a timer for 5 minutes
- Write whatever comes to your mind, for 5 minutes, without your pen leaving the paper
- Don’t judge or censor what you write, and simply keep writing
- This exercise is useful because it goes straight to the unconscious, without being blocked by the conscious mind
List of stressors:
Make a list of your stressors, both physical and social/psycho-social
- For instance a stressful relationship, low self-esteem, a chronic illness
- Decide to slowly replace a stress in your life with something that gives you energy
- If you can’t change the things that stress you, work on how you think about them
Some thoughts are essential to good mental health:
- I am in control and I have power over my situation
- I am safe and secure
- My life has meaning and purpose
Inevitably, there will be some circumstances in which these thoughts and statements do not feel true. At those times, you can use mantras to actively exert mental control and change your perception.
You can choose the mantras that feel right to you, or have a guide or therapist suggest one for you.
Mantras which may be helpful
- Let go, or letting go
- I am love
- I am at the centre of peace, and nothing can touch me here
- Nothing matters, unless I choose to make it matter
- I am safe
- All will be well