Have you ever been stuck awake at night, thoughts racing through your head? Or had one of those days where your brain just won't quit?
If you have, you probably felt exhausted the next day, tired from the stress of repeated or intrusive thoughts. The opposite also applies—when we're tired or sick, it's much tougher to think positively or be creative.
This article will consider how our thoughts influence who we are, from our bodies to our behaviors. We'll look at how the things we think can impact our health and show you ways to think more positively.
If you believe that you're stuck with a negative brain, read on for some practical exercises that may 'change your mind!'
Why Our Thoughts Matter
To keep it short and sweet, the 'what' and 'how' of our thoughts considerably impact how we feel, behave, and interact with others. Every day, we think, think, and think, and it's why the term "stream of consciousness"is a very apt description for all the things that go on inside our heads.
Some of it is helpful, rational, and conducive to our wellbeing, but other thoughts are not. Research suggests that humans may have over 12,000 - 60,000 thoughts daily, and the bad news is that most of these are negative (Hanson, 2009; Tseng & Poppenk, 2020).
This is called "negativity bias". It's an evolutionary tendency that once helped us survive—but today, it's more of a hindrance (Soroka et al., 2019).
If you want to think more positively, just knowing this is a solid place to start.
Do Our Thoughts Impact Our Health?
This precise brain-body connection is what makes our thoughts so important, primarily because negative thinking can be damaging to us physically.
Thinking negatively, e.g., going over worst-case scenarios, ruminating, or obsessing over 'the bad stuff,' also causes our brains to produce hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Not only do these deplete us (emotionally and physically), but over time, they can contribute to conditions such as headaches, muscle tension, or anxiety (Freeman, 2009).
In contrast, thinking positively influences how we interpret and manage stress. Research shows that we may be able to combat the negative effects of unhelpful thinking with positive thoughts —that even when we're sick, believing we will recover can contribute to the brain's release of 'good hormones' that strengthen our immune response (Rasmussen et al., 2009).
Emerging evidence from a closely related field of science, psychoneuroimmunology, even hints that happiness can directly benefit our immune function by changing our gene expression (Frederickson et al., 2015).
If this all sounds great, and you're ready to think more positively, the upside is that you can.
One of the best ways to do this is by challenging the very root of your negative thoughts—so let's start below the surface by exploring your core beliefs.
Where Do Negative Thoughts Come From?
Our core beliefs are where much of our negative thinking comes from:they're deep-rooted ideas that we hold about ourselves, other people, and the world.
Unlike automatic negative thoughts, which can be fleeting (though persistent), core beliefs are like a lens through which we view the world. They influence how we interpret our daily lives—from our social context to random events and encounters.
They're like the bulk of the iceberg that lies below the surface, and we can usually follow our negative thoughts right back to them when they are triggered.
Trigger: Your car won't start
Negative thought:"This is so unfair—again!"
Core belief—"The world is against me!"
Just like automatic thoughts, core beliefs can be changed with cognitive restructuring. It's a matter ofrecognizing andchallengingthese deeper assumptions so you can re-shape that 'world viewing lens' and think more positively.
How To Change Your Thoughts
Whether you want to improve your health, habits, or relationships with others, these practical exercises will help.
Commit To Fact-Checking
Neuroscientifically, more frequent positive thoughts increase the likelihood that we will think positively later on. They 'rewire' our synapses in a way that makes positive cognitions easier to access, to be specific (Doidge, 2007).
One way to trigger these processes is to pick a wristband that reminds you of your positive thinking goal. Each time you catch a negative thought, remind yourself to challenge it and fact-check any frequent offenders.
You can even imagine you're writing an essay!
Is that statement a fact or an opinion?
What are your sources?
What evidence supports this?
What evidence contradicts this?
This exercise can be very effective for thoughts about the future, like "I'm going to fail this test." But if you want to take it a step further, set aside some time to think about where they came from and the underpinning (core) belief you'd like to challenge.
This next exercise may help!
Root Out Negative Core Beliefs
Distorted or unhealthy core beliefs are strongly linked to negative moods and behaviors, while healthy or realistic ones help us act more rationally.
Building on our last exercise, you can identify core beliefs by working backward from automatic negative thoughts.
If you thought:"I'm going to fail this test," and pondered on that, you might have recognized a deeper core belief: "I'm a failure."
You can challenge this core belief using Socratic Questioning if you want to confront your assumptions on a deeper, more philosophical level (Clark & Egan, 2015).
To 'uproot' a core belief, put it on trial:
Why do you think that?
Why would you or anyone assume that?
Could an alternate assumption be made?
Where might this belief have come from? (e.g., your childhood, a past trauma)
Take The Silver Linings Challenge
Unhelpful thoughts are most common when we face challenges, but for every door that closes, remember that a window opens.
The next time you find yourself 'doom and gloom' thinking, make an active effort to try and find the silver lining to your cloud.
Say it starts to bucket down with rain, for example."Well," you might think,"I don't need to water the garden today!"
Over To You
Positive thinking isn't a cure-all for happiness or peak fitness, but it can be a powerful tool in your happiness toolbox.
If you're willing to work for a healthier brain and body, you're already a few steps forward on your path to success. So...happy thinking!
About The Author Catherine Moore
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
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Soroka, S., Fournier, P., & Nir, L. (2019). Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(38), 18888.
Tseng, J., & Poppenk, J. (2020). Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism.Nature Communications,11(1), 1-12.
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