Thinking "happy thoughts" won't get you anywhere

Many people try to change their stress physiology through 'positive thinking'.

It's a useful practice to be diligent around the quality of our thoughts, however, because of the way our physiology is wired - with 80% nerves going from the gut to the brain, and 20% from brain to the gut - most of our thoughts are created by messages our brain receives from our visceral nervous system, which are then interpreted by our mind.

Your nervous system has no opinion about the information being transmitted - it simply wants action to be taken when your body is dysregulated. In contrast, the mind interprets dysregulation as a catastrophic event, and imagines all manner of horrific consequences.

Humans have an inbuilt negativity bias for survival purposes. This is biologically normal, and desired, to help prevent us from being eaten by a tiger or crushed by a woolly mammoth. However, in circumstances where there is no life threat, and someone's thoughts are persistently negative, chances are, their stress physiology is switched to 'survival' mode.

Unless the nervous system's survival switch has been permanently activated, the body will find its way back to regulation when the mind gets out of the way. Sometimes the body needs the support of an attuned practitioner to lend their nervous system to the client to help their body remember.

When our clients find safety in their body, and can notice the constant shifts it makes towards homeostasis after they experienced a stressor, their thoughts will reflect the 'felt' experience of safety and calming-down.

It's easy to see why people think working at the level of the mind will reduce over-analysing and fear-based thoughts.

But we have more chance of changing our thoughts by paying attention to the sensations in our body than we do by trying to change our mindset. The most effective and comprehensive way to permanently change the quality of our thoughts is to address the stress response in our body - not by challenging thoughts/beliefs.

 

Here's an example:

If your body is shaking and trembling, and your heart is beating more rapidly than usual, your visceral nervous system will send a message to your brain (also part of your autonomic nervous system) that your body is not in homeostasis. This message is intended to be purely factual and without emotion.

Your mind receives/picks up this message from your brain, and, based on past experiences, interprets the message as, "something is not right". Then it marches off like a good foot soldier to find everything that’s wrong. I mean, EVERYTHING! And it gets every part of you involved in the search as well. Neural pathways that are exquisitely attuned to danger fixate on the shaking and trembling in your body, and your fast-beating heart. Those sensations turn into palpitations – quicker than an eye blink. Then suddenly, without warning, you are having a panic attack, and your body is riddled with anxiety you can’t shut off. This feedback loop creates anxious thoughts, and a belief that something terrible will happen, even though you don't know what that will be.


It doesn't matter where someone is on the anxiety map, finding safety in the body orients their thoughts towards safety, which means they don't have to respond as if a tiger is chasing them, or worry if they're going to be eaten for dinner.

 

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