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  • Monika Getty

Retraining Your Brain

One of my friends is into something called the Law of Attraction. To put it simply, the Law of Attraction is the belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into your life. So if you think positive, positive things will happen; if you think negative, negative things will happen. While I can understand the intention behind this is to encourage people to think and live positively, I always found this theory to be a bit of a gyp to those of us who have gone through awful things, or whose brain is just wired to automatically think more negatively.

It seems rather unfair to say that bad things will happen to you if your thought process is negative, as if you're inviting it in. Does this mean that we deserve bad things to happen to us, because of our experiences or default brain wiring? That if the very nature of our brain is more negative, we are doomed to have a miserable existence? I don't think so. While our experiences can shape us, they don't have to define us. I think a better and more helpful way of saying things is "Spend more energy and thought on the good, positive stuff and less energy and thought on the negative stuff." While negative thoughts are normal, if we try to retrain our brains to not dwell on them and try to redirect our thoughts to more positive ones, we can lessen the impact of those nasty little voices in our heads.

The first step is to recognize these negative thought patterns for what they are. Some common negative ways of thinking include:

Overgeneralization: This way of thinking happens when one bad experience makes you think that the rest of your life will be like that. "I didn't get that job I wanted, now I'll never get one."

All or Nothing: This is when you see everything in terms of black and white, from one extreme to the other; where you're either perfect or a complete failure. "I was doing so well on my diet and then I ate some chocolate, I'm such a loser! I'm never going to achieve my goal so I might as well give up now."

Magnification: When you exaggerate the negative details of an event and your own imperfections, making things a much bigger deal than what it actually is. "I can't believe how badly I did on that presentation, I was so nervous I kept stuttering and losing my place. Everyone must think I'm an idiot, especially my boss. I'm probably going to get fired, then what will happen to me?"

Overthinking: When you obsessively plan on every possible scenario and your reaction/response to it in an effort to avoid failure and hurt. "I get so emotional and flustered when I have to deal with my relative that I need to act out in my head what they might possibly say and how I can reply to them without getting all worked up and looking like a fool."

Should Thoughts: Telling yourself that you should do something to motivate you to do it, which ends up making you feel pressured and stressed. "I should work out half an hour every day. I should stay up late to answer all the work emails."

Obsessive Rumination: When you are overly preoccupied with what you perceive as mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, or opportunities forever lost. This can make you feel anxious, stuck and depressed. "I knew I should have sent in that paperwork days ago, but I was just so busy. I know I was still on time, but what if this screws us up for the rest of the year? I can't stop thinking about it and now I can't sleep!"

Emotional Reasoning: This is when we believe that everything we believe or feel must be the truth of our reality. "I feel so guilty about not being able to help my friend out when they asked, I must be a terrible person."

As you can see, sometimes our brain isn't our friend; sometimes our thoughts are our own worst enemy. Continually repeating negative ways of thinking, where it's second nature to think like that without being really conscious about doing so, makes those neurons develop stronger connections. However, the amazing thing about the brain is its ability to grow new neural connections, to adapt and reorganize based on our changing needs, regardless of age. This is what is called neuroplasticity. When we learn something new or change our way of thinking, we create new connections between our neurons; we rewire our brains to adapt to our changing circumstances. New pathways can form and fall by the wayside, are created and are discarded, according to our experiences. This happens every day, but it’s also something that we can consciously encourage in order to make our patterns of thinking healthier and happier. This, in turn, will strengthen those neural pathways and encourage them to flourish, while negative pathways, when we use them less and less, are eventually pruned away.

So how do we break these cycles of negativity and try to redirect our brains to more positive ways of thinking? Like many things, it takes practice to get better at it. We have to make the conscious decision to catch ourselves when we go down those dark, familiar paths and instead take a firm hold on the reins of our brain to redirect it go somewhere else. I'm not saying that you should squash or ignore negative feelings as they have their place in our emotional makeup; just that you don't want them completely controlling you and how you feel. Here are a few ways to retrain your brain to think differently:

Be Aware of Your Thoughts: In order to encourage more positive thinking patterns, first become aware of your current ways of thinking. By becoming more mindful, you can acknowledge and identify the patterns of thinking that have become a habit, then decide whether or not to engage them. Once we are mindful of our thoughts, we can understand which negative thinking patterns we engage with the most and detach ourselves from believing that they are true. Start paying more attention to the things you tell yourself, and always remember that you have the power to change them.

Reframe Negative Thoughts: Thinking things like, "This will never work," or "I've just ruined everything, I'm such an idiot," doesn't help anybody; it allows it to control your mind and mood. However, once we recognize these thoughts, we can start to counter them with positive ones. The next time you become aware of a negative thought, ask yourself, "Is this really true? Is this thought useful in any way?" Asking these questions will challenge your negative thoughts and change your focus. One simple way to change the dialogue is that every time a negative thought barges its way in, recognize it for what it is and counter it with thinking of three positive things. Or when you think something like, "This is going to be a disaster, there's no way I can do it," catch yourself and take the time to transform that thought into a positive one. Think instead, "Yes, there's a chance this won't work out, but there's also a chance I might succeed. All I can do is my best and try." This makes your brain redirect your thoughts and look for the positives instead of the negatives.

Understand Your Triggers: Certain people, places, and things in life can set into motion a rush of negative thoughts so it’s important to be aware of them. It could be dealing with a difficult person you can't avoid or taking a test. By figuring out what triggers you, you can prepare yourself to feel more in control of your thoughts instead of falling back into old negative thinking patterns. When you understand the setting or situation that your emotional trigger occurs in, try to change it in your favour; this can be anything from listening to calming music to practicing meditation to completely removing yourself from the situation. You can also try adapting your thinking before you react. When you feel yourself getting all worked up, take some deep breaths, try to detach your emotions and look at the situation logically. Whatever you need to do to make yourself feel more comfortable, do it.

Prove Yourself Wrong: Sometimes your brain lies to you. Your inner critic loves to convince you of things that simply aren’t true, making you feel awful about yourself. Try thinking of this voice as someone separate from you and challenge the lies it tries to tell you. Ask yourself, "Is that really true? Is there any proof to back up that up?" When it tells you that you'll never lose those 10 pounds or that you'll never be able to learn that new program, take it as a challenge. Walk the extra 5 minutes even when you think you're too tired or keep trying different ways to learn what you set yourself to learn. Each time you successfully prove your negative predictions wrong, you're training your brain to see yourself in a better light. In time, your brain will start to view your limitations and your capabilities in a more accurate way. Another tactic is to acknowledge that inner voice and its input but say, "No thanks! I choose not to engage in those negative thoughts," or something more blunt like, "Nope! Delete."

Create A Personal Mantra: Reciting a mantra or affirmation is a great way to pull yourself out of the negative thought spiral and into the present moment. It can be recited when you feel negativity creeping in or several times throughout the day in order to get into the habit of focusing on the positive; you can use them to motivate and inspire you to be the best you can be. Some examples are things like, "I am enough" or "I got this" or "I choose to be happy." Over time, you'll start to believe those statements more than the unhealthy things you've been telling yourself.

Change Your Surroundings: Sometimes your thoughts can seem so loud and overbearing that the best thing to do is to change your physical surroundings. Take a walk in nature, meet up with a friend, read a fictional book that takes you away and uplifts you; choose an activity or place that you find enjoyable and you know will leave you feeling better. The point is to engage in something other than the negative cycle so that you can come back to the problem when you’re in a clearer headspace and more able to deal with it.

Negative thinking patterns can be hard to break. Patterns that have been in place for years won’t disappear overnight so it’s important to be compassionate and patient with yourself as you work through them. Retraining your brain to think differently takes time, just like any new skill; however the more you practice thinking realistically, the stronger your mind becomes. Moreover, your brain will undergo physical changes that will permanently help you to think differently. As you get into the habit of being aware of your thoughts and directing them towards the positive, it will eventually become second nature. We all deserve love, peace and happiness, so just start believing in it - and yourself.

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