As a continuation on the science of habits from last week, today’s post is about something that most of us don’t regard as habit: thought patterns.
When we think about habits, we usually think about what we do:
- Biting your nails
- Hitting the snooze button
But habits can control our thoughts just as much as our actions. Habits start as thoughts, and sometimes they don’t get beyond your brain. Even though we don’t necessarily consider thinking an action, it can be the routine part of the habit loop.
Because the habit doesn’t manifest itself outside our heads, it can be hard to notice and even harder to change. Becoming aware of the negative thought patterns is a huge milestone in stopping the behavior. It’s actually the step before you figure out your trigger, which is rarely necessary to consider when trying to stop biting your nails, for example.
In addition it’s easier to ask for accountability on a physical habit. Telling you friends
“hey if you see me biting my nails, tell me to stop”
goes a long way to working on the habit. But it’s not really possible for someone to tell you to stop listening to that negative tape track that many of us have on endless repeat.
Focusing on the negative is an evolutionary protective mechanism. In the days of early man, focusing on what could potentially kill you and remembering all the ways you got hurt – so you don’t do them again – helped keep our species alive. Unfortunately it has gotten distorted in our modern culture where many of the things that we focus on and that stress us out no longer are actual threats to our lives.
For example, perhaps you submitted 3 papers to various journals and 2 got accepted and one got rejected. Which one are you going to be the most affected by? Theoretically shouldn’t the excitement of the 2 papers outweigh the rejection of one paper? Of course it should, but that’s not how our brains evolved.
That rejection isn’t a saber tooth tiger out to kill you – but that doesn’t stop the way you have evolved to think about it. And while this ‘negativity bias’ is designed to protect us, it can actually do more harm than good if it’s left unchecked.
It can become a habit for your mind to constantly wander down the rabbit hole of negativity. Even if nothing bad has happened to you lately, and things are actually pretty good right now, you may find you’re thinking about negative things that happened ages ago. Or you may have gone through a rough patch with life and developed a habit of thinking about how you’re showing up in the world.
This is what happened to me.
I went through a rough few years. My husband had cancer for the second time. I was having trouble trying to conceive and through the tests they found an ovarian cyst. I had surgery (and also had my gall bladder removed after suffering with that for 2 years) and then 3 months later got pregnant with our daughter. During my pregnancy I broke my ankle during the period we were showing our house and trying to move.
All of this, plus an enormous amount of other stressors led to adrenal fatigue and depression. For well over a year I was not a functioning human being without 16oz of espresso in the morning and more caffeine throughout the day.
I was miserable. I was stuck in a massive, dark hole of exhaustion and depression. The depression also fed on exhaustion. And to this day I notice that if I’m very tired I will also tend to be depressed as well.
And so I got into a habit of thinking to myself “ugh I’m so depressed”. It just played on repeat in my head over and over. Anytime I didn’t really have the capacity to think about other things, this is what would come up.
And it was so persistent., even after I started to heal my adrenal fatigue. I was working out, losing weight, eating more healthfully, and starting to live my life again, but the talk track was still there. I should have been emerging from the mental complications that come along with adrenal fatigue, but I wasn’t – because of this habit.
And I didn’t even realize it was happening. It didn’t matter what I did for my physical health, without kicking this mentality, I was never going to get past the depression.
If you think
I hate my life – than you will
I’m so depressed – then you are
I can’t get better – then you won’t
It wasn’t until a friend taught me about the negative thoughts and how to become aware of them that I even noticed I was doing it. I started to see that when my mind was wandering and didn’t have anything to mull over, it would usually head down a path saturated in negativity.
I’m so depressed
I’m so fat
I’ll never lose weight
I’m a terrible mom
On and on and on
Because that’s the ridiculous thing about negative talk – it knows no boundaries. While it started with “I’m so depressed” it didn’t just stick with just that. When I started to come out of the chemically induced part of the depression (from the adrenal fatigue) and I could no longer rationalize the reason for the depression, my mind started making up reasons to be depressed.
When there was no more cause to the depression, my mind created its own. And this is why it’s so hard to get out from under depression. This is one of the reasons that many people don’t find complete improvement from anti-depressants alone. There has to be a cognitive repair of the negative thought patterns or no amount of physical assistance will help.
So what was the solution?
My answer is – a lot of work. Probably not the magic pill theory that anyone wants to hear, but the good news is that it’s possible.
The first step, as I referenced above, is actually noticing the patterns are there. I’ve found that imagining being an audience to my thoughts helps separate them so that I can see what’s happening. If you are feeling down, or you’re in a good mood and you start sink, try to reach that observer mode.
What are you saying to yourself that’s sucking the wind out of your sails? What is driving you down that road? Try to find the core thought. For me it was the depression. It’s the thing that my brain was trying to feed.
The core thought is the over arching theme to all the thoughts. You could have a core thought of self loathing and have thoughts that degrade yourself as a person: I’m so fat, I’m so ugly, I say all the wrong things. Or you could have a core thought of fear/anxiety: I will screw up, I do everything wrong, everything will fail.
Everyone is different, but notice how so many of the thoughts sound the same. That is why you need to get to your root issue. Plenty of people talk poorly to themselves, but getting to the controlling belief that’s feeding the thoughts will do more to stop them then just trying to stop general negative talk.
Once you’ve discovered your root then it’s time to beat back the talk track. Notice when those thoughts come up for you and stop. For me it helped me to literally stop whatever I was doing physically, put a mental hand up to the emotions, and say no to them. And then I had to reframe them. For example:
“Ugh I’m such a bad mother”
Stop doing dishes
Mental hand and say no
“You are doing the best you can and you love your children”
Go back to the dishes
Rinse and repeat. Over and over and over.
And then when the core thought comes up – as so often it does, look for why. For me when “I’m so depressed” would come up I had to examine the reason that thought made itself known. Many, many times it was because I was just tired. And then I would do the same exercise but put in WHY I was having that thought – instead of just reframing.
“Ugh I’m so depressed”
Stop doing dishes
Mental hand and say no
Why and I thinking this – realize I’m tired
“You are not depressed, you are tired”
Finish dishes and then go rest
This is why it’s so important to identify the core thought. Few people can just stave off depression by lying to yourself and saying you’re happy. Yes there are techniques that you can do that can help change your chemistry by doing something physical (fake laughing until you actually laugh, for example) but that is not changing thought patterns.
In the beginning stages of doing this exercise it may feel ridiculous, pointless, frustrating (due to having to do it so much) – but this is how you change a habit. You have to interrupt the routine and do something different. It takes a lot of mental energy because you are constantly engaging your neocortex which is the opposite of the energy saving habit loop.
But this is how I did it, and it worked. I’m not “completely cured” of negative thoughts, because that is not possible. They have diminished, though. When I do hear myself thinking negative things, I have a habit of noticing them and reframing them – which prevents them from getting out of control. And that is possible the best habit I have ever developed.
If you would like to work on your negative habits and need help, please fill out this form and we can talk about how I can help you.
Disclaimer: I’m am not a psychologist/psychiatrist or medical professional of any kind. I am life coach with a story and this is how I helped myself. If you are suffering from negative thoughts, this post may help you, but I urge you to seek professional care as well. If you are suicidal, please reach out to someone immediately. The national suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.