As a Cognitive Behavior Therapist I am constantly amazed by how many clients have no idea of the negative self talk that goes on within their brain. We grow desensitized to the clamor of these automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) similar to those working beside a large generator at an industrial worksite. When it is first turned on it seems deafening but in an hour or two it fades into the background and by the end of the day we forget it is on until someone shuts it down and we are shocked by the silence. So it goes for the negative narrator in our brain. This depressing commentator comments on everything and over the years its drone fades to a back ground noise that we ignore at our peril. The problem with this is that each negative thought uses up energy in its electrical and chemical interaction and because our brains are linked to our bodies through our limbic system each negative thought produces a corresponding negative emotion, experienced usually as anxiety or depression.
We can break this cycle by becoming mindful of our thoughts, to begin thinking about our thinking. Dr. D. Amen has some great articles on ANT therapy (Google Dr. Amen or ANT therapy) to help you begin to understand different kinds of negative self thoughts and how to reframe them. When we begin to pay attention to our thinking, specifically negative thoughts, we are at first amazed by how much of it we are capable of. Its not just calling yourself an idiot or other choice names we adopted for ourselves along the way but it is also reflected in thoughts like I must, always, blame, mind reading etc. etc. and we would do well to invest some time and energy to reframing these thoughts as our negative narrator blabs away. Your brain when starting this process is like an untrained puppy, chewing your slippers, humping your leg and then peeing in the corner while you try to focus on a video game. You have to pay attention to that puppy if you want it to grow up into a well trained dog, so to with your brain.
Imagine you have a cage with two bears in it. One, the negative bear, has been feed steak and eggs while the other, the positive bear, has had a leaf of lettuce if it is lucky. After a few years who do you think is going to rule the cage, what about after twenty years. You can change these dynamics by constantly taking the steak out of the mouth of the negative bear by reframing your negative thoughts into positive ones thereby feeding the positive bear. The change won’t happen overnight; in fact it may take months. When you first went to the gym you only noticed that you were sore the next day. If you kept at it three months later you would begin to see and feel a difference with your body so goes it with your brain.
Negative conditioning is very powerful. Your mother may have told you dozens of times that the stove is hot when you were a child but when you finally touched it you didn’t have to be told again. Throughout our evolution negative conditioning kept us alive long enough to perpetuate our species. Positive conditioning although better for raising children to become thoughtful and caring adults is not as powerful as negative conditioning. When changing your thinking you need to do more than just reframe a negative thought into a positive one. We must install the positive thought. Installation is an important technique when changing your thinking. Just like crazy glue, when you put some on a block of wood and glue it to a wall, you have to hold it in place for a couple of seconds. If you just place it and walk away it will fall off in a few seconds because the directions say hold in place for a few seconds for a permanent fix. It is the same with installing a positive thought in your brain after reframing a negative thought. It takes some time. For instance, you wake up and your first thought is I have to go to work. Reframe that negative thought with I want to go to work. Then install that positive thought by thinking about a few things that you like about your job. I am sure you like it twice a month when you get paid but think of a couple of other things as well. That is how you reframe a negative thought with a positive on and then install it into your memory and brain.
Sometimes when in the thick of it the negative narrator is just mumbling in the background. Dealing with your boss, your wife, your husband, your rebellious teenager or the police officer giving you the ticket can distract us from monitoring our thinking but there is no distracting us from the feelings that we feel within our bodies when a negative thought through our limbic system which creates a corresponding negative feeling within our bodies. So if you miss the negative thought you will not miss the negative feeling that comes right after. So when you feel that anxiety, that depression or that tension in your chest, we all experience it differently, think about what you were thinking before the feeling. Now that you recognize that negative thought reframe it with a positive one and then install it. You can create a positive feeling to replace the negative on. It works both ways but only if you do it.
Sometimes you need to challenge that negative narrator in your brain. He rules your brain just like that negative bear rules your cage. We assume that every thought we are capable of is true but when you start to listen to negative commentator you should realize that not only is he negative he is sometimes quite insane. It may start like this; your boss calls you and asks you to meet him in his office in an hour. Your negative narrator starts like this; what have I done, why does he want to see me, could it be about that extra coffee break I took last week, oh my god I am going to be in trouble, for sure I will be fired, my wife will leave me and then I will be evicted, soon to be homeless and lining up at the soup kitchen, eventually as an addict I will be tweaking through the alleys and end up dead in a dumpster. Along with thinking tirade you feel lousy, are sweating and feel like you may be having a heart attack. An hour later when you sit down in front of your boss he tells you that he has noticed you lately and would like to give you a raise because of your hard work. You were temporarily insane admit it. Not only that but you worked yourself up into a frenzy but you are tense, almost had an anxiety attack or maybe you did and are now exhausted. You did your self no favor by listening to that frantic negative commentator. At that first diversion from reality in your thinking you should have challenged that pessimistic homunculus by recognizing that automatic negative thought, as “mindreading” reframed it or at least challenged it.
Be consistent; follow through with reframing and then installation each time. It will seem clumsy as first but as you get the hang of it you will notice a decrease of anxiety, of depression and maybe even your level of frustration and don’t forget to get on your bike every second day to burn off the fuel, you don’t want to put out the fire with gasoline.