Have you noticed that your brain is always "on"? That's what it does-it thinks! Scientists have found we have, on average, 60,000 thoughts a day. 95% of those thoughts are habitual and of those habitual thoughts, about 80% are negative. That's about 45,000 habitual negative thoughts a day. We are actually hard-wired to be alert for danger, so the brain scans for anything that could be a threat. This worked well for our primitive ancestors who lived in harsh conditions and had to be on the lookout for predators, but not so well for modern humans.
Our brains perceive negative thoughts as true and in the present moment-and a threat. So, our bodies respond to the negative thoughts like we are facing a clear and present danger! Perhaps these are familiar thoughts to you:
- I'm worried I won't be able to pay my bills.
- I'm just not good enough.
- I'll never find the love I'm looking for; All the good ones are taken.
- I'm not as talented as she is.
- My boss never notices all the extra effort I put in.
- I'm so stupid.
- That idiot just cut me off in traffic!
- If I blow this presentation I'll lose my job.
- I should have known better.
You can fill in more if you really start to notice your thoughts. You may be surprised at how mean you are to yourself-and possibly others! In her book Happy for No Reason, Marci Shimoff quoted Dr. Daniel Amen, a world-renowned psychiatrist and brain imaging specialist who calls these thoughts ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts. We have downloaded them into our subconscious and they are so habitual, they have formed neural pathways in our brains and become beliefs. Negative thoughts stimulate the areas of the brain that relate to depression and anxiety.
The good news is, you can re-wire your brain for greater happiness by forming new neural pathways. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks because our brains have the quality of "experience based neuro-plasticity." In other words, we can form new neural pathways by directing our thoughts in new directions. The saying is, "Neurons that fire together, wire together". You can create new default thinking patterns that serve you better.
So here are some practices to help you change your brain wiring and banish the ANTs for greater happiness:
1. First, notice when you are having negative thoughts. Your body will often let you know by feeling contracted. Congratulate yourself for noticing! In order to change something, you need to recognize where you are now. Ask yourself if this thought is moving you forward or keeping you stuck. Then break up the thought by taking a few deep breaths and looking for a thought that feels just a bit better. What thought can you deliberately offer that is true and comes from a more positive place? It doesn't need to be a big jump-just something that offers relief. Keep heading in the direction of more relief.
2. Practice loving yourself and more self compassion. One way to get started with this step is to think of someone you love and have compassion for. Place your hand on your heart. This actually stimulates the "feel good" chemicals to be released in your body. Wish this person well. You may want to try the Tibetan blessing: "May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease." When you have gotten in touch with those loving feelings, focus in on yourself with the same message. Speak to yourself like you would if soothing a small child.
3. Meditate: Go gently with yourself if you haven't meditated before. Thoughts will come up in your mind. Find a comfortable and supported position, and breath slowly and deeply. Focus on your breath. The practice of meditation is to simply notice the thoughts non-judgementally and redirect your attention back to your breath or a mantra. I like the practice of saying "Hmmmm" when I notice a thought and then returning to my breath. Meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure, anxiety, stress and many other conditions. It has also been shown to improve memory and make structural changes to the brain, including new neural pathways and an increase in the immune response.
4. Make a list of positive aspects: What is going right in your life? What can you appreciate? What things are you doing well? Realize you do all you can, then let the rest go. Let the universe take care of the things that are out of your control.
The key to all of this is Practice. Forming new neural pathways means training your brain by deliberately thinking new thoughts until the old pathways disengage and the new ones are created.