01.05.2021 Holistic Health

What are you thinking?

Counsellor Charlette Barry suggests some simple steps to combat those niggling negative thoughts

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare
In 2005, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published findings on thought patterns concluding that humans produce 12 to 50 thousand thoughts per day. That equates to one thought per second in our waking life, 80% of which are negative and 95% repetitive. Magnetic Resonance Imaging demonstrates the effect that negative internal dialogue has in stimulating those regions of the brain that activate depression and anxiety.

These thoughts then establish dysfunctional core beliefs and become part of the narrative we tell ourselves. How then can we become more empowered so that we can start to rewrite our personal narrative and live more self determining lives?

1. Accentuate the positives

As humans, we possess a negativity bias which developed as a survival mechanism. The amygdala is the part of the brain that notifies the body of real or perceived danger, activating the “flight or fight” response.

Our biases are reinforced by the amygdala retaining information and confirming preexisting beliefs, usually the negative ones.

Maintaining a gratitude journal can assist in positively reframing and manifest abundance in our lives. Professor Robert Emmons, author of Gratitude works, has developed tips for journalling based on his research. He suggests focusing on people, not on materialistic things, and also recommends recording events once or twice a week instead of daily.

There has also been a lot of research conducted on positive affirmations and their effectiveness. Canadian researcher Dr Joanne Wood published a study in the Journal of Psychological Science on positive self statements. She found that there were incongruences between affirmation and individuals’ self perception making people feel worse.

Dr Woods suggested that instead we start with neutral statements which possess more validity for us, for example, “I am working on accepting myself” rather than “I am beautiful.”

Another way to approach self affirmations is to engage in exercises instead of reciting statements, for example journalling about the people you value in your life. A brain imaging study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience ( 2015) provided neural evidence that is is rewarding to think about what we value and contributes to our feelings of self worth.

2. Mindfulness

” Be mindful”… “be in the moment”… ” be present” are terms we often hear but what are the implications? How can we remain present and maintain a state of awareness?

Mindfulness is the practice of being an observer of your thoughts without judgment or attachment.

In his book Mindfulness for Beginners, John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way….on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally. ”

Research findings indicate that practising mindfulness can reduce stress, boost immunity and even contribute to enhancing personal relationships.

With the increasing popularity of mindfulness and awareness of its benefits, many books and courses have been written to provide an introduction to the practice and several local Buddhist centres facilitate short courses providing guidance and support for novices.

3. Just breathe

Breath is our life force, the active principle that forms part of any living thing. Depending on the culture, it’s known by varying names. In China, for example, it’s known as Chi or Qi whereas in India, the life force energy is called Prana. Japanese culture refers to Ki, hence the very popular modailty known as Reiki.

When we experience challenges with our breathing, it often indicates a disconnection with the life force and issues of anxiety can develop, along with poor oxygenation of our blood contributing to physical problems. Techniques such as Chi Gong and Tai Chi can aid in circulating Chi energy, in turn improving circulation, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory functions.

You can also try a very simple exercise to stimulate more relaxed breathing, known as diaphragmatic breathing. Start by taking a deep breath in through your nose to the count of eight, pause for another eight counts, purse your lips and then slowly breathe out, once again, to the count of eight. If you repeat this for a cycle of eight, you will feel your heart rate stabilise, your breathing become less rapid and your stress dissolve.

Breathing deeply signals to the amygdala that there is no immediate danger, which helps to maintain stillness within your body.

4. Grounding yourself

Sensory awareness is a simple and effective technique to ground yourself and bring you back to the present, if you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It helps to stop what you’re doing and engage your senses, making a note of your surroundings and what you can see, hear, feel and smell. You can incorporate movement by wiggling your toes and fingers, shaking your hands and walking around the room or outside. For example, if you’re driving, feel your seat against your back , your foot on the accelerator, your hands on the steering wheel, and list objects or people in your view, describing what people are wearing, the colour of cars, and the sound of your car radio and engine and so on.

These exercises reassure your amygdala that there is no threat , prove a distraction and remove the focus from your thoughts to your surroundings and what’s happening in the now.

5. Self compassion

The intrinsic need to identify with others is part of the human condition. We all want to be liked and have the approval of others. The danger here is that when we invest too much in the need for external approval, our self acceptance fails and we place too much weight on the opinions and approval of others.

In her self compassion course, Dr Kristin Niff suggests that we adopt a worldview of kindness towards ourselves in place of self criticism and judgment. She recommends asking ourselves what we need and trying to honour that, and thinking about what we’d say to a friend experiencing a similar situation. She also sees compassion as being a powerful transformative tool if we open ourselves up to receive it. As the Dalai Lama says, “One must be compassionate to one’s self before we can give to the external.”

Charlette Barry

Charlette Barry is a qualified counsellor and teacher. She possesses experience in the fields of Mental Health and Family Support and has lectured people with disability, migrants and for Corrective Services. She currently teaches refugees and migrants from diverse backgrounds. e: charlette.barry@hotmail. com