Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Controlling Our Negative Thinking

Humans are smart, but do we use our smarts for good? Our brains are fantastically powerful and are truly the most complex, sophisticated physical objects in the known universe. Our minds are capable of modeling the environment to an incredibly precise degree, and we are constantly using them to learn about, understand and systemize the events around us. Unfortunately for us, because of our biology, our brains are innately prepared to analyze negative things. These fantastic computers in our heads are constantly thinking about past problems, future worries and how best to protect our ego from perceived diminishment. Our minds are the pinnacle of evolution on the Earth and yet, they are constantly concerned with things like: vindictive anger, defeat, guilt, regret, misery, victimization, fear, resentment, grievances, repression, disappointment, denial, bitterness and others. This inner conflict disrupts our productivity, and our health and even influences us to become bad people. Even though we may hate our own negative thoughts, we don’t know how to stop them. We are, in fact, addicted to ruminating about our insecurities. Why do we spend large portions of our day worrying about things that we can’t change or that will never happen? To truly stop the process, we must first understand it. Interestingly, the chaotic and destructive thinking that we do is largely involuntary, meaning that we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.

Most of us continually think about the most stressful things possible. This is so because of our evolutionary heritage. Evolution crafted animals to reduce stress provoking events in the environment. To do so, it equipped them to think about stress constantly. Animals, and mammals especially, replay and model stressful scenarios so that they can respond appropriately if the scenario actually arises. In fact, animals that don’t worry have low survival outcome. Studies that look at fish, mice or primates that are fearless, show that these animals are great at acquiring resources, but are the first to be eaten. The most stressed animals are often the ones with the best survival rates; however, they are not very productive because they are constantly hiding and cowering.  We no longer have any natural predators, so stress is not as adaptive for us as it was in prehistoric times. We owe it to ourselves to take the time to transcend these biological constraints. This is difficult to do though, because by default, our brain is “wired up” for stress.

Conflict and pride run on autopilot in the brain as part of our “default mode network.” This network is active during introspection and self-referential thought, but is turned off whenever our attention turns to a task. Because of this, for many of us, the only time we have a break from negative thoughts is when being engaged with the environment drowns out our inner voice. Do we need constant distractions such as an absorbing TV show just to find peace through diversion? We shouldn’t. Sadly, most people’s default mode network has been taught by experience to run negative programs. In most people the threat centers of the brain have been recruited to be a part of the default network and this actually makes it virtually impossible not to think about threatening things. This happens because the threat centers keep frightening and disturbing memories active. This is especially true in many psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression and anger disorder.

We may not want to turn off our brain’s threat centers completely, but we do want to exclude them from the default network. It is not that hard! By consciously reframing our experiences we can remodel the existing biological connections to reprogram our thinking. Basically, the default mode of your brain is like an electrical circuit with the threat centers of the brain burned into the wiring. The tendency toward negative thinking is ingrained, and because of this the mind travels like a stream down a gully. We must create new gullies and fill in the ones that do not serve us. There are three powerful perspectives that can help us to change our view on the world and remodel our brain’s default mode network: nonjudgementality, nonresistance and nonattachement.

1)      Nonjudgementality: You are nonjudgemental when you make a conscious choice not to judge. Most people and animals judge everything that they come across. They either like it or dislike it. It is especially immature to either love new things or hate them, but most adults do this constantly. Instead of judging something, recognize it for what it is and move on without stamping it with your approval or rejection. Nonjudgementality free you from a reactive, chaotic state of negativity.

2)      Nonresistance: Always accept the present moment as if you have chosen it, never work against it. Nonresistance is choosing to accept the things that you cannot change. We are constantly resisting, and not only is this often futile but it is extremely frustrating for us. Being nonresistant and nonstriving gives us a break from opposing our environment. Often we can’t change things all at once, so it is best to learn to coexist with the things that are bothering us as we think about the best ways to fix them in the future.

3)      Nonattachment: We all have unhealthy emotional attachments to things that we can easily lose. These attachments set us up for disappointment and emotional pain when we do lose them. Even if we don’t lose them, we live in fear of losing them. Spend some time where you imagine losing everything that you love: property, friends, family, accomplishments, physical attributes etc. Imagine losing these things, and yet still being at peace, as if peace is the only thing that really matters. It is.

Whenever you feel desperate, angry or frustrated think about these three words. These three perspectives are very powerful because they force us to reanalyze our predicaments from a positive viewpoint. It is a great exercise, every night before bed, to try think of one thing to be nonjudgemental about, one thing to be nonresistant towards, and one thing to detach from.

These three words can help us to make better use of our brains and become more virtuous people. Imagine making the conscious decision to not judge anyone or resist anything for any reason. Imagine what your life would be life if you were consistently noble and pure. This is the best way to free ourselves from the upsetting and insecurity-promoting thoughts that torture us throughout our day. Being free of nasty thoughts has a reciprocal relationship with being calm, kind, content and productive. In fact, seeing yourself as wholesome and pure of heart is the quickest route to becoming a happy, likeable, successful person.


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