We can change our automatic thoughts
Overthinking — ruminating, analyzing, worrying — immediately produces stress chemistry, lowering our mood, and increasing our irritability. Adrenaline (a stress chemical) is as good as a strong cup of coffee for getting us up and running. In fact, it produces a false sense of activity, making us feel like we’re actually engaged in something active, vital, and productive. Stressing ourselves out by thinking is one way of preventing feelings of emptiness, pain, and boredom.
A Menu of Thoughts
Of course, our thoughts don’t need to be negative in nature. There’s nothing stopping us from using our brains to engage in truly productive activities like problem-solving, reflection, and creative output. In fact, we should use our brains for those sorts of things. The trouble is that our brains are lazy, and unless we have to solve problems or produce products, they’re quite likely to grab the easiest thoughts to reach for, the ones we normally think, the ones we thought at this time yesterday, the ones that are preprogrammed into our DNA — the negative ones. Unfortunately for us, asking our brain to consistently choose life-affirming positive thoughts goes against our nature.
If we listen in to the narrator in our head, we’ll usually discover a huge array of stress-inducing content. “So much to do... there’s no way I’m going to get there on time tonight.” “I’d better send the application in. I hope I didn’t miss the deadline....” “Dinner, what am I going to make for dinner?” “Pesach is coming soon; I’d better start planning....” “Oh, no! I forgot to call the bookstore!” and on and on for all the hours of the day.
The endless stream of tense tidbits tightens our muscles and etches lines on our foreheads. We feel irritated, exhausted, and stressed out.
But here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be this way.
Change the Station
Your brain only runs its automatic negative channel if you allow it to do so. If you don’t take charge, it will do what it’s preprogrammed to do. If you do take charge, however, it will do what you tell it to do. If you continue to tell it what to do for a while, then your instructions will become the new automatic programming, and you will no longer need to take such an active role in generating your thoughts.
Here are ten simple strategies (in no particular order) to help you get started reprogramming your brain for positivity, health, and joy. Do these intentionally while you’re engaged in “mindless” tasks:
In the morning, spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you’re looking forward to in the day ahead.
In the afternoon, spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you’re looking forward to in the coming evening hours.
Every hour, gaze upon one item within your vision for about a minute and assess its value or beauty or assistance to you in your life. Thank Hashem for it.
When you’re faced with a problem, set aside a specific time and time limit for thinking about it. For instance, decide to think about it at nine p.m. for a maximum of 20 minutes.
When you have a problem, ask yourself what would be an easy way to begin to solve it.
When you feel emotional distress about a problem and you have already completed the problem-solving steps that were applicable, ask Hashem to do the remainder for you.
Each day, at the beginning of the hour, think about what happened in the previous hour and give thanks to Hashem.
At the end of each day, write down three things that worked out well that day. Thank Hashem for them.
While you’re engaged in a mindless activity such as getting dressed, washing up, setting the table, etc., smile. Thank Hashem for giving you the ability to perform the activity (keeping in mind that many others can’t).
Once a day, at any point in time, thank Hashem for allowing you to program your own brain.
Doing this won’t remove the big and small challenges from your life, but it will dramatically increase the energy you have available for dealing with them. Whether you choose to utilize one, some, or all of these strategies, you will be building new brain circuits that will begin to search out the good on their own time. Soon, wonderful thoughts will “pop” into your brain, bringing with them health-inducing chemistry, positive cognitions, and welcome sensations of emotional well-being.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 834)
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