I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” and it got me thinking … about thinking.
The average person has around 50,000 thoughts per day and in most people they are predominantly negative. (1) Your thoughts are more than fleeting moments created by your brain. In many ways, your thoughts are your brain.
How Thoughts Create Your Brain
Every thought creates a neural connection. Think a thought often enough and the neural connection will get strong, particularly if there is an emotional attachment to it. Conversely, if a memory has no use or is rarely stimulated, eventually those neural connections will wither away from disuse.
Thoughts also change your brain by stimulating the production of brain chemicals which can change the structure and function of your brain.
A good example is what happens to your brain under stress. When a situation you perceive as stressful occurs, it increases your level of the stress hormone cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol literally excites your brain cells to death, particularly in the hippocampus, the seat of memory.
Cortisol also halts the formation of serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is essential in forming new brain cells. Stress actually leads to premature aging on a cellular level causing cells in both your body and your brain to commit suicide.
Cognitive Distortions: Thoughts That Aren’t True
Psychologists have labeled certain negative thought patterns as cognitive distortions. These are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t actually true.
See if any of these thought patterns sound familiar to you:
- Dwelling obsessively on a single, unpleasant detail.
- Seeing everything as either black or white — no middle ground.
- Overgeneralizing with words like “always” and “never”.
- Jumping to conclusions.
- Catastrophizing or seeing the worst in every situation.
- Taking things personally.
- Blaming others for your problems or your reactions.
- Blaming yourself for things outside of your control.
- Being driven by “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” which leads to feelings of guilt.
- Going to any length to be right.
If you have these kinds of thoughts, know that they are working against you in many ways. They probably lead to a lot of unhappiness for both you and those around you. But worst of all is that they are causing you stress which is keeping your brain from being as healthy as it can be.
Challenge Your Thoughts
Besides years of psychoanalysis, is there anything that you can easily do to change these negative thought patterns? Remember the bumper sticker.
Next time you catch yourself falling into one of these patterns, remind yourself that you don’t have to believe everything you think. Recognize a thought as a cognitive distortion and challenge it instead.
You may recall a self-help book from the 90’s, You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. The next time you find yourself thinking negatively, remind yourself that this is true. Your thoughts are powerful. They create brain chemicals that are either adding to or subtracting from your brain health.
Quiet Your Mind with Meditation
Gaining control of your thoughts is one of the best things you can do to improve your brain, your happiness, and overall well-being. One of the simplest and most effective techniques to do this is with meditation.
People who meditate have stronger neural connections between different parts of the brain. Their brains show less atrophy due to age and have more neural synapses.
Regular meditators experience improved focus and concentration, greater creativity, stress reduction, better sleep, and even improved immune function. Meditation can make you happier, smarter, and more resilient regarding life’s ups and downs.
If you are new to meditation or haven’t done it with much success, check out the links below for different ways to meditate — guided meditation, sound technology, and brainwave entrainment. Download one or more of the free audio files that you can start using instantly. See which kind of meditation works best for you, then make it a regular habit. It takes only 10 minutes a day and can change your life! (Learn how to effortlessly embrace new healthy habits here.)
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