This is one of those truths I wish I had been taught as a kid. As we know, our brains churn out thousands of thoughts, all day long. What I didn’t know as a kid is that not all of these thoughts are true, relevant, or helpful. The brain’s job is to spit out thoughts based on all kinds of random and non-random input. Our job is to figure out which thoughts to pay attention to.
I did not know, growing up, that it was my job to be smarter than my brain. It took me quite a ways into adulthood to really understand this. It was a relief to me to realize that I can’t control which thoughts show up in my brain. That’s an important thing to understand. We all have “automatic” or default thoughts that don’t actually reflect what we believe or what is “true.” We also all have thoughts that aren’t helpful to us. For example, I may have the thought that I should never make a mistake. Given that it is not actually possible to never make a mistake, this is not a helpful thought. I may have it, but it would be much better for my self-esteem to not focus on it or give it any credence. It’s just a thought, after all.
It was a relief to learn that I could choose not to focus on unhelpful thoughts. As I’ve learned more about neuroscience and neuroplasticity, I’ve become more excited about how to change my thinking and how to help my patients. We can actually train our brains to focus on the helpful stuff and not focus on the unhelpful stuff. It just takes lots and lots of effort.
How does this translate to “real life?”
First, you have to get quiet enough to notice your thoughts. That can take some work all by itself. Close your eyes and imagine sitting on the sidelines of a parade route. Notice each thought as it shows up and parades by.
Second, when you notice a thought, ask yourself if it’s helpful to you right now. The thought, “I hate myself” is never helpful. The thought, “I have to take out the trash on Friday” is not helpful at 11:30 pm on Monday when you’ve been trying to fall asleep for 40 minutes. It is probably very helpful on Thursday evening.
It may take effort to figure out if particular thoughts are helpful. Many thoughts associated with depression and anxiety will assure you that they are True and are of utmost importance. Overthinkers, like myself, generally believe that every thought is crucial. It can be challenging to gain enough distance from your thoughts to assess them more objectively.
Here are some general questions to help make the distinction: Is this line of thinking making me feel better? Have I already had this thought numerous times today or in the past week? Is it getting me anywhere? Is it making me feel bad about myself? Is it helping me accomplish what I want to accomplish in this moment? Do I actually need to be thinking about this right now?
If you decide that the thought is not helpful at this particular moment, the goal is to shift your attention away from it. (Notice that I did not say, “The goal is to not think it.”) Focus on something neutral or positive. It could be the piece of art on the wall or the lyrics to your favorite song. It could be the feel of the air coming into your right nostril each time you inhale. Whatever it is, put your focus on it for at least 30-60 seconds. If your focus wanders back to the unhelpful thought, just bring it right back with no judgment or scolding. Over and over.
By focusing on something other than the unhelpful thought, you are literally teaching your brain not to focus on the unhelpful thought. Over time, you can train your brain not to go down that unhelpful road at all (or at least have it be a very quick trip). Mindfulness meditation is one very effective tool for gaining experience in putting your focus where you want it to be (for some options, see my General Resource page).
To train your brain to focus on more positive things in general, look to Dr. Rick Hanson’s strategy of Taking in the Good. Negativity bias shows that our brains are wired to learn negative information very quickly, but not to learn positive information quickly (back when we were cavepeople, there was a big incentive to learn immediately that tigers were dangerous and not such a big incentive to learn that dirt was not dangerous). This essentially means that our brain’s default mode is to notice the negative and that we have to work much harder to learn and be impacted by the positive.
Dr. Hanson recommends taking 30 seconds 6 times a day to actively “take in” something positive. It might be a compliment you were given, or a beautiful cloud in the sky, or the feeling of reaching the next level in your video game. Take 30 seconds to let those good feelings and thoughts soak in. It takes this long for your brain to learn positive information. This helps you to remember and believe and be impacted by the positive feelings. It helps to start to shape your brain around what you find meaningful. It gives you a fighting chance against the negative information your brain effortlessly absorbs.
There is so much we can do to change how we experience the world, and ourselves. There are small, concrete steps you can take to train your brain, to help you focus on what you want to focus on in life. It starts with remembering not to believe everything you think.
To learn more about positive neuroplasticity (i.e., changing the brain to focus on the positive), start with Rick Hanson’s website. He explains the scientific data and has practical strategies for using it.