Yes, we can change our thoughts.

Don’t believe everything you think. My therapist suggested this after I told her that someone said something crappy to me. And by crappy, I mean infuriating, marginalizing, made-me-want-to-hit-something crappy. She listened intently, then made the suggestion with a straight face, as if she really meant it. “Don’t believe everything you think.” I chuckled (obviously) but soon felt awkward given how earnest she was.

How does that work, I asked? And how long does it take before I feel better? Does it involve traveling to Narnia or barreling through a train station wall? After all, people don’t choose feelings or decide when they’re going to strike. We can’t control how we react to the world.

Or can we change our thoughts?

Re-Training your Brain

It sounds like a pipe dream, like willing it to rain or blinking away a crow’s foot. But humans are meaning-makers, and it would be arrogant to assume that one person’s take on a situation is the absolute truth. If that were the case, what would be the point of political debates, religious sermons or car commercials?

The fact is…while we can choose to accept how we feel about things as irrefutable, we can also change our thoughts.

The human brain is ever-changing through a process called cerebral plasticity –triggered by environmental, physical and emotional factors. But while sometimes we can feel like victims of this process, there is growing evidence to suggest that we can take an active part in it. A recent study conducted at MIT revealed that when one connection, or “synapse” in the brain strengthens, its neighboring connections weaken. So, not only can the brain adapt to new thought processes, it can minimize others while doing so.

This isn’t to say it’s an easy or quick process. Like learning a new instrument, language or skill, shifting thought patterns takes plenty of practice, especially when you’ve been approaching things the same way for a long time. But there are resources available to help the process along.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that strives to highlight and change inaccurate or negative thoughts so you can confront challenging situations more effectively. In a CBT session, a therapist will help you recognize patterns of thinking and behavior that may be troubling, asking you to take note of any physical, emotional and behavioral responses in different situations. This can help you determine whether your reactions to situations are based on fact or an inaccurate perception of what’s really going on. You might be surprised at the thinking habits you’ve established over your lifetime and how they’ve become ingrained and automatic. Raising your awareness is a powerful step toward change. Like most things, however, practice is an essential part of the process.

Mini-Mantras

If you don’t want to see a therapist, you might start experimenting on your own, on a small scale, by developing “mini-mantras” to use in uncomfortable situations. And by this I don’t mean having a passing thought while multi-tasking, but rather actively reciting phrases, out-loud and often, when such situations arise.

Here are a few examples:

  • Body image: If you’re not feeling great in your skin, test the facts. For example, try: “Just because I think this pair of slacks makes me look lumpy doesn’t mean it actually does.” Plug in. Hear yourself. Let it sink in. 
  • Social anxiety: Not looking forward to a dinner date? Give yourself permission not to go and release yourself of the need to explain. “If I don’t want to go, I don’t have to, and I don’t have to explain why. I’m giving myself permission to stay home.”
  • Difficult family relationships: If you’re experiencing a dicey or toxic family dynamic, practice differentiating between what your family member does or says and how you internalize it. You might tell yourself something like, “I’m not causing her behavior. It’s how she is experiencing our relationship, but I’m not going to own it. It isn’t about me.”
  • Job dissatisfaction: Looking for a new, more challenging position but having self-doubts? Tell yourself: “I may think I can’t do this job, but I’m wrong. I can do it. I CAN.”

If this seems like a futile exercise, the first defense might be telling yourself that it isn’t. Denise Fournier, Ph.D. recently wrote in Psychology Today: ” a shift into more positive self-talk has been found to powerfully affect the way we think, feel, and behave.”

Okay, so we probably can’t make it rain and most of us have made ill-advised slacks purchases. But let’s face it; crow’s feet serve the vital purpose of keeping our feathered friends secure on their phone line perches. And that’s the thought I will choose to have when sizing things up in the less-than-flattering dressing room light.

Don’t believe everything you think.

Go ahead, say it out loud. You might surprise yourself.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222570/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindfully-present-fully-alive/201901/why-shift-in-self-talk-is-the-ultimate-self-care-strategy

For more information on CBT: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610

This article was originally published in Thrive Global on February 12, 2019.

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