The Neuroscience Behind Replacing Fear-based Thoughts With Empowering Ones
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ” Aristotle
Your brain was never meant to stay the same — it was made to adapt. When your environment changes, your brain’s wiring conforms. Your brain has to remain flexible to maximize your odds of survival. While this certainly applies to external physical changes, the same goes for changes in your internal environment — your thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions. You intend to think more positively. But you still find yourself feeling worried or stressed too often. Odds are that you’ve trained your brain over time to get used to those feelings as you’ve reinforced the same thought patterns. Every time you repeat a pattern of thoughts or behaviors, you strengthen the corresponding neural connections in the brain. Snooze the alarm a few times, check your phone, make a cup of coffee with cream — do these often enough and they become a habit. The wiring in your brain will make it easier for you to repeat those actions until they become second-nature. Go a few years without practicing the Spanish you learned in high school and you will forget most of it. To make room for new skills, your brain prunes out those old neural connections — maybe except for the most important words like “cerveza.” Training to replace your limiting thoughts with empowering ones is similar to cultivating any physical habit — it takes time.
Here are 3 reasons why it feels so difficult to break negative thought patterns & 3 antidotes to overcome them: 1. YOU SWIM IN A SEA OF "DANGEROUS" INFORMATION Your brain responds to potential threats before it gives any attention to opportunities. Since the time of our cavemen ancestors, our brains have been on alert for danger. Back then it meant our ears would perk up when we heard a rustle in the bush. Today it means turning our attention towards the TV reporter who persuades our animal brain that he has news that could potentially help us avoid the crisis of the day.
Most media is skewed to the negative. You pay attention, they make money. They understand that your brain will want to listen to the rest of the story if they make you think your life could be at stake. Much of what we learn in school about the history of humanity is heavily skewed to the negative as well. Out of the thousands of years of human history, we don’t hear about the benevolent acts of millions. We aren’t taught strategies to help us cultivate compassion and kindness. Our brains are flooded with information about wars and battles. Our neural networks are reinforced with information about how dangerous this world is. As a result, your brain becomes used to constantly seeing “threats” everywhere. When you make the effort to notice more of the abundance in your life, it feels unnatural. The “what’s wrong” neural networks are much stronger than your “what’s right” networks. ANTIDOTE: Be mindful of the content you consume. Go for more educational, motivational, and inspirational content to nourish your brain. Choose to follow uplifting and empowering content on your social media feeds. Turn off the talking heads on TV. Sure, you can keep yourself updated on what’s going on in the world — but don’t spend your whole day in front of the same negative information. 2. DECADES OF MENTAL PROGRAMMING TAKES TIME TO UNDO When you were a cute little baby, how many times did you fall when you learned how to walk? It took practice to build this new skill of holding yourself up on your own two feet. All you’ve known before then was the comfort of the bed, couch, or your parents’ arms. The hardware for walking had to be built inside your brain. When you’ve spent most of your adult years worrying, your hardware for positive thinking has become rusty. Pruning out old synaptic connections between your neurons takes time. Just as your muscles have to break down to rebuild stronger muscle tissue, so do your old mental programs need to be wiped out to be replaced with more elevated ones. The power of your mental focus is tested in difficult times. That is when you need to feel the discomfort and change your thinking regardless of the temporary pain. It will feel as if you’re not being yourself, as if you’re “faking it.” But you had to fake walking many times before your brain got the message that this was a vital skill to learn. What started out as a clumsy attempt at the conscious level of the brain ultimately made its way into the subconscious level as a skill. ANTIDOTE: Be patient with yourself. Give yourself credit every single time that you notice your own negative or fearful thoughts. That is the first step to making a change. You can’t change what you don’t own. The more you notice disempowering thoughts, the more space you create to replace them with empowering ones. 3. YOU AREN’T USED TO GOING WITHIN It’s raining outside. Does that make you feel good or bad? It depends on the context. If you’ve just spent an hour getting ready for a dressy evening ball, you’re unlikely to be very excited about the rain. On the other hand, if you’re reading an enticing book in your cozy armchair, you probably don’t mind or even enjoy the sound of the rain. External events are what they are. It is the meaning we assign to them that determines how we feel about them. Your brain’s job is to sort out the billions of data coming in every second and present you with an image of your reality. By the time you are aware of it, that reality has gone through multiple filters to show you what you expect to see. These filters are woven out of your past experiences and knowledge. If you don’t expect to see the good things in life and new opportunities — you will not see them. Becoming self-aware and going within helps you understand that what goes on in your mind matters. Not only does it matter — it affects the physical matter of your body. Your brain wants to match your mindset to your physical state. When you are overwhelmed with stress, cortisol and norepinephrine are released to match those thoughts. The cycle perpetuates itself until something in your environment changes or until you make a conscious decision to think anew. ANTIDOTE: Become familiar with the stream of your own thoughts. Set aside time every day to sit quietly and notice your thoughts. Do not try to stop your thoughts. Be the one who is aware of them. The stream of thoughts is rushing by while you are standing on the shore observing it. Feelings of anxiety, discomfort, or boredom that arise during this process are a result of habit. This is where you get to witness the strength of those neural networks. The great news is that every time you notice these feelings, you are in the position to shift to a new thought and to generate a new feeling. Become mindful of the disempowering stories in your head. Use your imagination to create empowering stories. Replace the disempowering stories with empowering ones on a consistent enough basis. You are then on your way to creating a new habit — a habit of positive thinking to make you more resilient.