Where does you mind go when you aren’t focused on doing or seeing something in the present? Either you are rehashing a past event or worrying about the future. It’s not likely you are contemplating happy events.
Your brain has a “negative bias.” This means it tends to scan, register, store and recall unpleasant more than positive experiences. This bias is meant to protect you. It can also hurt you. Stress from memories and worries is just as toxic to your body as if the experiences were happening in the moment.
In other words, you not only get mad at your boss for cutting your conversation short, at your loved ones for not noticing how frustrated you are by their carelessness, and at the service technician on the phone who made you answer a million questions before issuing you a repair order…but you “relive” these scenarios in your brain the rest of the day and possibly for years.
Your imagination can be poisoning you with physical and mental side effects of pressure, tension and anxiety.The thought of a stressful event has the same detrimental effect on the body as the original occurrence.
Each time you replay one of these incidents, you might as well be taking a swig out of a bottle of poison. The norepinephrine released in your body strains your muscles, suppresses your immune system, slows your digestion (which could lead to being overweight), disrupts your sleeping (another factor in weight gain), taxes your cardiovascular system, fuels depression, decreases your sex drive, and causes memory loss. Even the anticipation of a stressful event increases the poison in your bloodstream.
How many times a day do you rehash an age-old conversation? Richard Ely and Elizabeth Ryan have looked at people's autobiographical memories and found that women’s recollections tend to be speech-filled. On the other hand, men tend to remain more analytical when ruminating, concentrating on “Why did I do that?” rather than, ‘What should I have said?”
Worrying about the future has the same effect. Men and women both worry, just differently. Women tend to worry more than men about how people will feel in reaction to a decision or event. Men tend to fixate on what they should do to fix a problem or not create a problem in the first place.
Whatever patterns of reviewing past bad events or obsessing about future disasters you have, you want to change them to keep yourself healthy.
Here are some tips that could provide the antidote to the poison of stressful thinking:
TIP #1: Breathe. Take “pay attention breaks” throughout the day and consciously regulate your breathing.
TIP #2: Identify what your brain is saying to you. The best way of working with your thoughts is to have a conversation with your brain when the past events or worries show up.
Do you need to remedy a past situation? Do you need to have a conversation with someone to complete an unresolved issue? A painful experience from the past can provide a good lesson for the future. If you had to do it over, what would you say or do differently. Write down your insights in a journal. Then when these memories show up again, shift your focus to something more positive instead.
Catch yourself worrying in isolation or in conversation. Thank your brain for protecting you, and then use the time to sort through possibilities instead of focusing on the worst that could happen. Ask yourself what is at stake, really. What can harm you? Is it true? What are the consequences of trying something, really? If you make the phone call, have the conversation, go for the promotion, stand on the stage, or agree to go on an adventure, how likely is the worst to happen? How does that weigh with the good possibilities? Even if bad things happen, what will you do next? It is likely things will turn out for the best if you keep moving forward.
Talk to your brain, learn from the past and assess the real risks in the future. Then move on to more productive thoughts.
TIP #3: Choose your emotions. You are much more creative, productive and fun to be with when you feel happy, amused, grateful, proud, and enthusiastic about the future. Notice what you are feeling and then choose how you want to feel instead. Your thoughts are likely to change as well.
If you can’t change your emotions in the moment, then do something else that will stimulate this shift. Even listening to music or looking at pictures can help to alter your mood.
TIP #4: Forgive yourself for being human. Everyone beats themselves up for what they did in the past and worries about the future in their own way. Practice these techniques and you will change your habits over time.
Don’t let your brain poison you. Choose what you want to think about and how you want to feel for your health now and in the future.
Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom by Rick Hanson, PH.D. and Richard Mendius, MD. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press, 2009.
Outsmart Your Brain: How To make success feel easy by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD. Phoenix, AZ: Covisioning, 2004.