Many people are feeling various low and negative moods at the moment. We can’t do much about how we feel in response to difficult circumstances but we can be aware of how our thinking may be affecting us. The brain has a negativity bias. As Rick Hanson describes it, teflon for good news, velcro for bad news. This is because our system is wired to look for and hook into any perceived risk and threat. Our brains tend to scan for bad news, overly focus on it, overly react to it, over remember it, and become sensitised to it over time. We also don’t tend to notice we have ‘Headfuck FM’ (Jamie Catto) tuned in: negative inner chatter playing in the background, a never-ending radio show of dialogue and opinions and warnings and strategising. This all creates unnecessary suffering.
Awareness and self attention can change this. By becoming aware when we have become caught up in thinking we can find some space from the thoughts. Just noticing we are thinking negatively can help.
Our thinking tends to define our own reality and story about things (perception) and contracts us against, rather than expands us towards. Our brain basically lies to us trying to create the familiar, so we can’t believe everything we think or what we believe. Our brains like to predict based on whats already known and they like certainty, so are not open to change. Which is why it’s so uncomfortable being outside of our comfort zone. Having insight and curiosity about the process of our own self narrative means we can alter our rigid relationship (over attachment) to it, realising it’s just a bunch of thoughts and beliefs which create fixed views. We are far more than our thinking brain. Understanding our brain is doing something by itself for itself, means we can open ourselves further to uncertainty, to change and let go of our need to be in, and hold tightly to, control. Rather than an “oh no” we can have an “ooh” curiosity mind set (Judson Brewer), which shifts us from contraction to expansion. Curiosity opens us to a growth mind set, so getting curious about how and what we are thinking changes our relationship with the thoughts. Meta awareness- knowing what our mind is doing – is a central aspect of transformation.
Our thoughts tend to find and wear a groove and follow the same loop, so we tend to get stuck in negative thinking. Rumination, filtering (looking at only the native), catastrophising (magnifying negative thoughts about the future), black and white thinking (polarising), fortune-telling, over generalising and discounting (ignoring positive alternatives) are all patterns of cognitive distortions. It’s important we challenge our own thoughts and question their truth. Byron Katie’s The Work is based on challenging our thinking, asking how we know are thought is true and what it would looks like if the opposite were true. There is nothing as powerful than the reframe to challenge our assumptions.
We need to realise how many assumptions we make and notice when we are becoming lost in our own thinking by seeing when we have become stuck to it, in it and by it and by building our resources to focus on what we can change or action. Acceptance of circumstances we can’t control, or that are outside our circle of influence, means we get less caught up in thinking about them. The serenity prayer from the 1930s reflects the waste of energy where we get caught up in thinking about things we can’t affect: “[God] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”. Our thinking can both waste and diminish energy and this affects our mood and willingness to engage in movement (lethargy, futility and hopelessness). A frequently cited saying which describes this is “where the attention goes, the energy flows”.
We need to actively balance the negativity bias by deliberately turn the mind to the positive, even small things to break the loop; ‘grow the good’ through celebration and savouring. This is not suggesting “just think positively/look on the bright side”. Gratitude and appreciation for what we have are active ‘kind’ practices. These kind qualities are those we use to create connection which creates a sense of wellbeing. We can pause longer in those moments when we may not realise we are actually safe or satisfied, and deliberately bring our attention to our body to acknowledge and consolidate what feel goods about the experience. This actually helps rewire the brain by actively directing towards the resource in the present moment, rather than following our thinking away from it and so discarding or over-looking any goodness. This is the concept of neuroplasticity, that the brain changes in relation to our experience. So the cultivation of a positive mindset through repetition and practice means we are actually improving and shaping our brain circuitry. Many clients who have adopted simple gratitude practices at the end of the day can vouch that it is effective in identifying the positives that we value but that we take for granted.
Self compassion means we are caring towards ourselves rather than judging and berating ourselves, so we can notice when we are talking to ourselves unkindly. Notice also when we are thinking it is just us, not others too, who are thinking and feeling this way (common humanity rather than isolation thinking). Acknowledge we are suffering, but show ourselves compassion as sensitive beings with sensitised systems, with valid feelings and reactions. We can experience wellbeing despite not always feeling happy. We can live with difficult emotions and still be kind to ourselves and others. We can ensure we are aligned to our values which means we still have purpose and contribute in our daily life, however small the gestures.
All these small gestures of awareness and attention are our positive and proactive capacity to turn ourselves towards kindness, openness and expansion. Towards a mindful living where we notice the value in the small stuff, pay attention to the present moment, are receptive and do not grasp onto judgement (thinking). At a time when there is nothing ‘big’ we can take action on, this is the gift we can give ourselves.