Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend? Obviously you would tell her she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms.
Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, we often choose to pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it.
There’s a good reason to avoid these types of negative thoughts. When you pay attention to negativity, you actually create toxins in your brain. We normally think of toxins as man-made chemical substances in the external world. For example, we talk about eating organic food to avoid toxic substances that have been sprayed on the crops. But did you know that simply by thinking negative thoughts you create toxins in the brain? Neuroscience researcher, Dr. Caroline Leaf, explained about this in her article ‘Toxic Thoughts’:
“The average person has over 30,000 thoughts a day. Through an uncontrolled thought life, we create the conditions for illness; we make ourselves sick! Research shows that fear, all on its own, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones. Toxic waste generated by toxic thoughts causes the following illnesses: diabetes, cancer, asthma, skin problems and allergies to name just a few. Consciously control your thought life and start to detox your brain!
Medical research increasingly points to the fact that thinking and consciously controlling your thought life is one of the best ways, if not the best way of detoxing your brain. … Consciously controlling your thought life means not letting thoughts rampage through your mind. It means learning to engage interactively with every single thought that you have, and to analyze it before you decide either to accept or reject it.”
What does toxic thinking look like? Here are a few of the most common examples:
- Mind-reading: Thinking we know what another person is thinking about us;
- What-ifs: Dwelling on scenarios that might have been;
- Splitting: Dividing everything into extreme black and white;
- Catastrophizing: Exaggerating and overdramatizing our struggles;
- Judgment: Focusing on other people’s problems instead of working on your own;
- Filtering: Focusing on the negative while overlooking the positive;
- Negative Self-Talk: Thinking negative things about yourself that would be considered abusive if they came from someone else.
To find out if you’ve allowed any of these thinking errors, here’s a short questionnaire:
- Does your brain amplify your negative traits while minimizing everything that is good about you?
- Do you spend more time thinking about what is wrong in your life than what is positive?
- Does your mind make hardships worse by dwelling on them over and over again?
- Do you suffer unnecessarily from imagining future scenarios that may never transpire?
- When challenges arise in your life, does your mind send you defeatist messages or do you analyze strategies to help you rise above the situation?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, then your thinking is probably highly toxic. In order to overcome these types of toxin-producing thoughts, you can follow Dr. Leaf’s advice and analyze every single thought that comes into our brains. That’s a good practice, but it can be incredibly time-consuming. Moreover, if the monologue of negativity has been habitualized, then it’s likely that much of your negative thoughts occur without you even realizing it. What if there were a short-cut to eliminating toxic thoughts?
It turns out that there is a short-cut. By cultivating an attitude of gratitude, you can starve all thinking that is negative, disordered or toxic. Just as fire can’t survive in an environment of water, so toxic thinking can’t survive in a neurological environment characterized by constant gratitude.
If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Next time your mind is tempted to start dwelling on the negative side of things, remember an occasion when you were incredibly grateful to someone. It could be a time when someone helped you, when someone forgave you, when someone went out of their way to show you kindness. If you can bring yourself to really feel grateful, the negative thinking will quickly vanish. Try it and see.