For MS Awareness week, MS-UK Counsellor Louise Willis explains that changing your internal monologue can make the world of difference
Have you ever caught yourself thinking or even saying, ‘The kids never shut up’, ‘No one cares’, ‘I am a total failure’, ‘I can’t do anything right’? If so, you are not alone. All of us have negative thoughts from time to time, they are a normal part of being human.
It can be easy to think or say ‘hey, cheer up!’ or ‘things will get better’, but are these words of encouragement really what someone who is struggling with negative thoughts needs to hear?
During our relatively short evolution, our brains are wired to focus on things that can go wrong, things that can cause us harm or pain. And this makes a great deal of sense and is what we call a negativity bias.
In our early days as a species, this wiring was crucial to survival. Imagine our ancestors sitting around a camp fire and hearing a predator approaching, whilst not being alert to the danger. This is not a good approach for our survival!
Stuck in the past
Due to our rapid evolution, our environment and the way that we carry out our daily lives has changed incredibly, but the primitive wiring of that particular part of our brain is somewhat stuck in the past. We can easily become stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts and beliefs.
There is an area of the brain located in the brain stem called the reticular activating system (RAS) which acts as a kind of funnel. It takes information from the outside world and focuses our attention. An example would be – you get a new blue car and all you see are new blue cars. This is the same process in what we choose to focus on in terms of experience, thought and emotion.
The good news is that, with practice we can change the RAS to filter in the good stuff. By seeing what we put into our brains as ‘food’, we essentially have the choice whether to nourish our brain and ultimately our mental health, or carry on in those same negative patterns. Over time the practice of focusing actually changes the neural pathways in the brain. This is called neuroplasticity.
Sometimes we can fall into negative thinking patterns that become automatic or knee-jerk reactions. Dropping something can instantly result in thinking ‘I’m so clumsy’ or missing a deadline can elicit a harsh talking to from ourselves.
Talk kindly to yourself
Trying to imagine how we would speak to a loved one can be helpful as we can often speak to others with more kindness than we do to ourselves. Making an effort to talk to ourselves with kindness and compassion can show us on a very deep level that we are worthy of respect, it is also a good model for those around us. We can think of the process as a computer program that would benefit from being re-written.
Negative thoughts not only affect our feelings but also our somatic or ‘felt’ experience. This is our bodily sensation of a thought or feeling. Identifying this ‘felt’ experience of particular negative thoughts can be incredibly helpful. Noting where in the body the thought is experienced, giving it a colour, a form and description can be very beneficial.
I have given some ideas for ways of challenging and changing negative thoughts. Choose what works for you and remember to practise regularly!
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write three things you feel grateful for each day, they don’t have to be huge things. The sun on your skin or a child’s smile are great to reflect on.
- Keep an eye out for thoughts like ‘always’, ‘should’, ‘never’ and ‘can’t’ – change to ‘sometimes’, ‘could’ and ‘can but choose not to’ or even ‘I will’ – own it! You will feel more in control.
- Try to see if there is any evidence for the negative thought. Is it true that ‘I always…?’
- Change negative self-talk, but not to the polar opposite as it can give unrealistic and unachievable goals. ‘I am good enough’ is much better than ‘I am perfect’.
- Cultivate a feeling of compassion, not just to others but most importantly to yourself.
- Create a positive daily mantra and repeat as often as possible, this only needs to be a few words.
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