Automatic Negative Thoughts
If I asked you to name the things you love, how long would it take for you to name yourself? Seems kind of odd that the first answer would not be our own being, rather it’s a car, phone, article of clothing, or a video game. Some may even say their dog first before their family. Funny, because we live in a society that contains so many words relating to self (self-motivated, self-employed, self control), that we don’t even think of ourselves when we think of love.
Ram Dass, a great spiritual leader, says it’s because we grow up in a society that doesn’t allow us to be that beautiful. We always have to wear what others wear, look how the famous look, talk like the rappers talk. If you don’t do these things you’re not cool, not worthy, essentially a failure.
On the flip side, even though we may not love ourselves fully, we tend to identify with any freaking thing that passes through our heads at any point during the day. I read a story from a scientist theorizing that is how we developed God, or supreme beings, because as we evolved, we heard things in our head before we could speak them. Surely that wasn’t us, rather a divine entity telling us what to do, but back now to our topic.
Researchers say some 80 percent of thoughts most humans have is repetitive banter, as to say we think about the same things over and over day in and day out. Einstein had a smaller brain than most people, but it was confirmed he had some 30 percent more neurons than the average human being at the time. He would sit for hours doing what he called “thought experiments” where he would go through hundreds of different ways to solve a problem. He didn’t have google, or smart phones. The brain can be trained like a muscle and he used it every day.
Einstein was asked by a reporter one time to name something common and he couldn’t do it. The reporter was proud that he stumped the great thinker until Einstein replied, “The brain is for creativity, not memorizing useless facts I could look up in a book. More than that, it’s about imagination, and when it comes down to it, we can imagine pretty bad things sometimes can’t we?
Imagine your loved one was supposed to be home by 11pm from a holiday work party and they are never late and always where they say they’ll be. On this particular night, their cell phone dies and they have to drive a drunk co-worker home. It’s 11:45pm, midnight, 1 am. No call no text. Your calls go straight to voicemail. This person is obviously dead in a ditch right? Once the automatic negative thoughts and imagination have time to start their whirlwind our emotions run wild.
As our loved one shows up and recounts the perfect storm of the night, you’re trying to calm your heart rate and just be happy they’re ok. The problem isn’t you, or your son, daughter, wife, etc. The problem is our amygdala.
The amygdala is part of our limbic system and deals with fear conditioning. Basically it is scanning the environment subconsciously looking for danger. If we were to draw something up, it would look a little like this:
Pretty simple right? Now this is probably happening every nano second we traverse the environment. The cool part about the amygdala is it actually bypasses our emotions. This is called reflex. Ever see a young kid fall, slam his head, stand up real quick, then start balling its eyes out? The body recovered from the fall first, then sensed the pain. This is important for survival.
The bad part of the amygdala is that it can actually be pretty stupid too. Tests show that the amygdala lights up with fear faster when presented with a picture of a snake, than it does with a picture of a gun. Guns haven’t been around long enough for us to be automatically afraid, but we evolved with snakes so we have a button for that.
This is why it’s hard for us to not imagine the worse, we are literally hardwired to seek and avoid danger through millions of years of evolution. But what do you do when there is no danger? Everyone knows that one person that is always negative and has the “same shit different day” attitude. Here are some solutions to keeping a cool head when things get a little out of control:
- De-stress – hit the breaks for a bit. Does that project need to be done right now? Does that e-mail need to be sent during dinner with the family? This was my problem when Jackie and I started Kismet. I worked too much. Small problems were like the sinking of the Titanic. Chronic stress multiplies the size of a problem exponentially. Go and do a cryotherapy session, get a relaxation massage, go to the beach, read that book you’ve been wanting too. We all invite stress by saying yes too much to please others. Hit pause for once and breathe.
- Realize you are not your thoughts – Descartes screwed us all with his “I think therefore I am” epiphany. Thoughts are synapses. Its as simple as that. The problem is when we identify with the thoughts as absolute or relative truths. I was listening to the story of a man who watched a gory documentary on Brazilian drug gangs. There were chopped up bodies and heads all throughout the movie. After the movie was done he began getting vivid images in his mind of killing his wife, strangling the dog, hurting his child. They would not stop. He tried many therapists and they all thought he was going crazy. The final therapist had him hold a knife to his throat and when he couldn’t slash him, this taught him that his thoughts were not part of WHO HE WAS! He even put the knife to his wife’s throat and finally realized how silly he had been. Soon after, the bad thoughts started to vanish which brings us to our next point.
- Be the Observer – If I’m not the thinking guy, then who am I? You’re the one behind the thoughts, the one watching them. You’re in the place that is always calm, where no reaction exists. As you live in this place longer and longer, you get deeper and deeper, and things become calmer and calmer. A lot of times a random negative thought will enter my mind and rather than act on it I just laugh and shake my head as I observe how funny it is. Don’t associate with your thoughts, especially the negative ones that have no purpose except to bring you and others down with you.
- Meditate – there are several guided meditations you can find on youtube for free! Close your bedroom door and listen with intent for 20 minutes. Scientists are finding out Cannabinoids from hemp and marijuana can actually help form new synapses in the brain, the only other thing that dies this is meditation! I’m not trying to turn you guys into yogi’s, let’s just admit that the holidays can bring unwanted stress.
- Cry – That’s right you read that correctly. My life has changed tremendously by learning to cry, even though my circumstances have not. Crying releases toxins, kills bacteria (found by a 2011 study), improves vision, improves mood, relieves stress and helps boost communication. Rather than fight tears to appear tough, I’ve learned to let them flow and have benefitted with improved psyche.
Negative thoughts, or complaining, serve no other purpose than to make yourself a victim. Having a victim mentality puts yourself before others and you start to objectify yourself. Everybody is going through tough times. Recognizing this, provides a sense of humility and dumbs down your own plight, and own drama. If you find yourself getting down remember this post. Remember that your amygdala is trying to protect you from dangers that don’t generally exist anymore. You may be reacting incorrectly through millions of years of conditioning as humans evolved.
Do you have a tip or trick that helps you get out of a funk? Leave a comment below!