Negative thoughts are false perceptions of ourselves that point to how we are lacking. As we all fall prey to toxic thoughts they become road blocks to our natural talents and abilities. These thought tapes run on play and are deeply embedded in our thought patterns, playing and replaying without our knowledge, holding us hostage to disabling and unreal beliefs, beliefs that paralyze us from taking action, moving forward, and stop our being who we need to be to have the most from life.
Step One: Our first challenge is to catch the thoughts as they arise in our minds.
Once we gain this awareness, we are empowered to dispel the negative for exactly what it is- a lie. Through awareness we notice the negative thought tape playing. The first step is to dismiss the negative thought. Without judging or berating ourselves for the negative thought, simply recognize it for what it is and let it go.
Step two: Replace negative, self-sabotaging beliefs with positive truths about who we really are.
The universal truth that we are all capable of achieving what we desire, full of inherent ability available equally to each and every one of us is the universal truth with which to replace toxic thoughts. As toxic thoughts arise, replace them with this spiritual principle of our individual and collective humanity. Cultivating compassion for ourselves and others creates the acceptance of our inherent greatness allowing space for focusing on our positive traits and abilities.
Step 3: Practice Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is sustained attention to the current moment. Mindfulness is the key to creating the change we wish to see. Notice your breath, the sensation of the warm water pouring over your body in the shower, the scent of the shampoo or soap as you apply it... hear to the dog outside barking, the wind, chimes... be in your body, feel your feet touch the ground... feel your muscles as you move about...the power of staying with this present moment frees us from ruminating about our past and worrying about our future. Staying in the “now” allows us the space and aliveness to detach from negative thoughts. It allows us to be all that we are.
There are many benefits to the ritual of paying attention to what we are doing in the current moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn has worked with Mindfulness since the early 70’s documenting the fabulous and remarkable success his program participants received while dealing with challenging and broad issues like chronic fear, chronic pain, and chronic depression. Recently in Canada, medical organizations adopted Zin’s mindfulness framework in recognition of its potent value as a non-medicinal and effective intervention. Mindfulness is also used to alleviate post-traumatic stress syndrome with US war veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition to physical benefits such as improved sleep and stronger immune system, mindfulness involves the part of our brain that is related to positive thoughts and emotions. As we practice mindfulness, we create and reinforce a path in our brain which grows deeper with practice, while gradually weakening our negative and deeply engrained thought patterns in the brain. MRI scans of meditation practicing monks, for example, Matthieu Ricard, analyzed by David Richardson, University of Wisconsin, measure significant increase in brain wave activity in the positive centres of his brain while practicing loving kindness meditation. Amazingly, studies confirm similar positive brain wave activity patterns in the brains of people who have meditated for only a brief time.
Step 4: Practice Gratefulness
Recent research in the field of positive psychology- the study of what goes well in life- point to effective interventions which increase our sense of well being. One such intervention is the practice of Gratitude. Robert Emmons has studied and written about the positive affects gratitude can have on our emotional well being. Based on his research, he recommends keeping a gratitude journal in which you write, daily, three to five good things that happened to you. If this is too demanding, a variation of the exercise is to think of three to five good things that happened to you today while preparing for bed or while lying in bed as you fall asleep. You can take it a step further as Carol Kauffman, Harvard University, suggests, and think of three to five good things that happened and what part you played in making them happen. For example, you stopped to admire and appreciate the beauty of the sunset... well, maybe you didn’t create the actual sunset, but you did stop to sweeten the moment by savouring its beauty...
Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California, Riverside, conducted an experiment where she asked students to write a gratitude journal entry three times a week over the duration of twelve weeks. At the end of the trial the happiness levels for participants in the experiment increased dramatically and were sustained up to six months later.
Practicing gratitude shifts our focus from what doesn’t go well to what is good and going well, reinforcing our positive thought tracks in the brain and diminishing the ancient negative tapes in our heads.
Step 5: Identify and Use Your Character Strengths.
Each of us has character strengths we are obligated to recognize and use. When we do, we understand what adds to our life quality, purpose and meaning, and what negates it. We also gain insight about how character strengths may be used in a more beneficial ways. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania and Chris Peterson, University of Michigan, identified and classified 24 character strengths common to individuals. Each of us has the 24 qualities that these positive psychologists identified, but each of us has our own unique ranking based on our answers to a questionnaire that they developed. To take the free test, log on to www.authentichappiness.org and take the Values in Action Character Strengths questionnaire. You will receive a ranked list of your character strengths and will want to focus on your top five strengths.
Please don’t see your twenty-fourth strength as a weakness. It is not. The idea here is to focus on your top five strengths because they identify values that are most important and meaningful to you, both personally and professionally. The most positive decision making is aligned with our values. As Stephen Covey says, your values will anchor you through change and adversity as well as good times.
Step 6: Engage in Activities that create flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “Flow” to describe our consciousness while engaging in activities that hold appropriate amounts of challenge and use of skill. When engaged in flow activities we lose track of time and are completely in focus, in the moment with that activity. It might be playing scrabble or solitaire, painting, photography, writing, carpentry, research... whatever it is, seek opportunities to engage in flow activities.
Such are a few specific methods we can use to create positive mind shifts. Remember that social supports are also important. As you start to replace negative thoughts with the methods and activities described above, you will feel better, do more, encourage others and find the goals you had floating around in your head more clear, specific, and attainable.
Marilyn Stannett is a Positive Life and Vision Enhancement Coach.