How many thoughts do we have in a day? Although nobody seems to be able to nail it down exactly, we know we have thousands of them, conscious and unconscious. These thoughts turn into our self-talk, telling us what to believe about ourselves and the world around us.
The problem is that our thoughts are not always true, and they’re not always helpful. As Dr. Daniel Amen says in his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, “You don’t have to believe every thought that goes through your head.”
Too often our thoughts come in the form of ANTs – Automatic Negative Thoughts. These ANTs are the thoughts that pop up and make their way into our brains (and into our bodies via chemical changes) before we even realize we’re having them. When we allow them to go unchallenged, we can start to believe things about ourselves, others, or situations that just aren’t true.
As we talked about in How’s Your Emotional Wellness, we need to be careful how we think. It’s easy when we’re not feeling great to let our minds just run away from us. Small things that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things can take on a life of their own and make us miserable.
Over time, these negative thoughts can damage our self-worth, impact our emotional health, and result in chronic stress, which can then cause physical illness.
How Can Negative Self-Talk Affect Our Health?
According to Ron Breazeale Ph.D. in his article, Thoughts, Neurotransmitters, Body-Mind Connection in Psychology Today,
the mind is capable of immense effects on the body. The literature has demonstrated again and again that thoughts affect neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that allow the brain to communicate with different parts of itself and the nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of the body’s functions, from feeling happy to modulating hormones to dealing with stress. Therefore, our thoughts influence our bodies directly because the body interprets the messages coming from the brain to prepare us for whatever is expected.Ron Breazeale, PhD
And in her book, Switch On Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf says, “A chaotic mind filled with uncaptured rogue thoughts of anxiety, worry, and all manner of fear-related emotions sends out the wrong signal right down to the level of the DNA.”
But, she says,
“Purposefully catching your thoughts can control the brain’s sensory processing, the brain’s rewiring, the neurotransmitters, the genetic expression, and cellular activity in a positive or negative direction. You choose.”Dr. Caroline Leaf, Switch On Your Brain
We can actively choose which thoughts to entertain, and how to speak to ourselves in a way that benefits instead of harms our health.
There are many different systems for doing just that. In fact, Dr. Leaf has a five-step process for getting to the roots of why we think the things we do and taking advantage of the neuroplasticity of our brains to ‘rewire’ them.
Sometimes, though, using something simple can help us get started down the right path. One way to do that might be to T.H.I.N.K. before we speak to ourselves.
Many of us are probably familiar with the acronym T.H.I.N.K. as it applies to speaking to others, but what if we use it when we speak to ourselves? This could help us filter our thoughts, learn to be kind to ourselves, and recognize when our thoughts are warning us about real danger.
We can ask ourselves these questions to help us process what we’re saying to ourselves through the thoughts we allow:
- Is it TRUE? Does this thought line up with what I know to be true? Are the words I’m about to speak to myself based on objective truth, or am I speaking from my feelings at this moment?
- Is it HELPFUL? Is this thought helpful in any way? What do I have to gain by saying this to myself?
- Is it INSPIRING? Will this thought inspire me to take positive actions, make needed changes, or move me forward in some way?
- Is it NECESSARY? Do I really need to give this thought any weight or does it need to go in my mental garbage can?
- Is it KIND? If I accept this thought, am I being kind to myself or others? Too often, we say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. We have to learn to speak just as kindly to ourselves as we would to those who are most important to us.
What I’m suggesting here is not just automatically turning a negative thought into a positive one without actually processing it; I’m talking about capturing those rogue thoughts and actually deciding whether to believe them or not.
- Is it TRUE?
- Is it HELPFUL?
- Is it INSPIRING?
- Is it NECESSARY?
- Is it KIND?
Is there ever a time when negative thoughts are helpful?
Often we feel we should be positive all the time and that we should never allow a negative thought to garner any of our attention.
Sometimes, though, negative thoughts can serve a vital purpose. For instance, suppose you have a thought, “This person/situation might be dangerous.” When you quickly run it through the T.H.I.N.K. filter, you may find that it’s true, helpful, and necessary. While it might not be inspiring or kind, it could save your life.
We often want to believe the best in people and think we’re just being paranoid when, as my husband says, “our Spidey senses start tingling.” While we can’t just let negative thoughts go unchecked and run roughshod over our health, we do need to at least acknowledge them and test whether they’re something we need to pay attention to.
While the negative thoughts can serve a purpose, we have to ensure negativity is not our default setting. Since our thoughts become our self-talk, it’s vital that we learn how to capture and process them.
As Dr. Leaf says in her book, “When you objectively observe your own thinking with the view to capturing rogue thoughts, you in effect direct your attention to stop the negative impact and rewire healthy new circuits into your brain.” Rewiring those healthy new circuits into our brains positively impacts not just our mental/emotional health, but our physical health as well.
Our thoughts, and subsequently our self-talk has the potential to impact our wellness either positively or negatively. We get to choose. It probably won’t be a one-time choice. We may have to choose — over and over again — to find productive ways to process our thoughts and improve our self-talk.
How’s your self-talk? What have you found helpful in processing your thoughts and making sure your self-talk supports your overall wellness? Please share!
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(2) Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Daniel G. Amen, M.D., 1998, Penguin Random House, New York
(3) Switch On Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf, 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI