Releasing the negative, embracing the positive.
This Blog Key is about dealing with negative thought loops and inner belief systems, those internal monologues that prevent us from living out the fullness of who we are. We will look at one specific mindful breathing tool I call Intention Pathways. In just 5-10 min a day you can start to make a real, life-changing difference to yourself and your future. I will move you into a new space of positive, ever-present thinking, into fullness thinking and empowerment thinking. It can be truly transformative. So let's dive in.
Intention pathways are not about suppressing negative thoughts. Neither are they about dwelling on or mulling, ruminating or wallowing in them. Rather, they are about identifying, recognising, acknowledging and letting them go. While also identifying, embracing and believing in positive thoughts or truths. It is a journey. The way out is through.
Negative thoughts, trigger the release of chemicals in our brains, like hormones and neurotransmitters, that basically bring us down. Whereas positive thoughts release hormones and neurotransmitters that pick us up by raising our mood, giving us better clarity with decision making and enable us to positively embrace our daily lives. It's not always easy to stop the negative thoughts from initially arising. However, we can learn to stop 'playing' with them, entertaining them, running them over and over in our minds in loops, ruminating or wallowing. We all know that spiral road we go down that can turn into self-pity or playing the victim! It is here the damage is done at a neurological and then physiological level. The more we replay and repeat the negative thoughts, the more negative chemicals get released into our brains, the stronger the neural networks become, the more stress is induced and then cortisol levels increase and we're on a slippery slope to negatively impact our mental, emotional and physical health.
However, we can learn how not to wine and dine those thoughts and instead, do two things. Firstly, stop playing them over in our minds. Secondly, replace them with the opposite, positive thoughts and words. Loop these positive, affirming, brain-friendly words around inside our heads. This, you have permission to do as often as you like. This is how you flood your brain with lots and lots of 'happy' chemicals, which will positively impact your brain's wiring and in turn, positively affect your mental, physical and emotional health.
The path to happiness is a choice. It is that simple. Well, not THAT simple, otherwise everyone would be doing it and this would be one seriously happy planet, right?
So what is the "Why"?
We all have moments of weakness, of self-doubt, of not feeling capable. Times when we battle with ourselves over whether we can achieve more than we are. We want to believe in ourselves, but for some reason, we convince ourselves there's no point in applying for that job, that there's no point in speaking out about how someone is treating you unfairly, to believe you will ever be good enough for a genuinely wonderful partner, that our children don't really like us. The list goes on and on and I'm sure, like me, you can write your own library. But you get the idea.
So who is doing the convincing? Who is making us believe these things? We're not talking to anyone because we're having these conversations in private. Well, there is the clue. WE are having these conversations. But then with who?
No prizes for guessing correctly - we are talking with ourselves. Well, kind of. Because in order to conversate, there needs to be more than one voice. And here we are talking about talking with ourselves - so are there two voices? Yes, kind of!
Simply put, there are two voices in these conversations. Both of these voices live inside us. Kind of in our heads. Though actually, it's a little more complicated than that. The first voice we'll look at is the one that is on your side, it is for you and that's because it is you. This is the ever-present you. The one that is your conscious voice. This is connected to your frontal cortex, your "thinking" brain. And although it often doesn't feel like it, this is the more powerful of the two voices. At least it should be and definitely has the potential to be. But, when we are having those conversations as mentioned above, it feels anything other than powerful. So what is this other trickster of a voice?
The second voice is one that reveals itself in the present but is actually rooted in the past. It is like a tape recorder, playing back recorded messages. There are millions of these recorded messages. Actually, probably trillions. No, for the sake of not being called out on this, let's say ad infinitum! This player sits in your brain and when playing back these messages it can choose to play any number of them in any order it likes. With an infinite number of messages to choose from, these combinations are also infinite.
For example, it can take messages recorded from three years ago and eight years ago and twenty years ago, all stuck together to form one message that plays out to us in our head in the present. Think of a library of information that is infinite. That's a lot of information. Obviously, the number of recordings are not ad infinitum, because there was a definite start date - when you were in the womb! That was the first time you became conscious. Aware. That is when the recordings started.
The problem is that our brain is wired for prediction, this is how it helps protect us. To fire off warning signals if it thinks we are in danger. So, simplifying it, if the brain believes that we are going to enter an environment that is threatening, or one that will trigger something negative, it will fire out warning signals - messages that convince us not to do something. How does it decide what is a threatening situation?
Memory. Or in this context, recorded messages. But this is only half the answer.
The brain is one incredible recording device. It doesn't just record thoughts, situations, circumstances we have experienced, but it also records something that is going on inside us - our emotions.
Emotions are not given to us from the outside world. They are "built", constructed within our brains. From birth, we are learning, like a language, to construct the most basic of emotional responses, for example, will this event lead to life or death. As we get older, the brain builds up this language. So, depending on the life we are each exposed to, our brains will learn a language that is both unique to us but will also have similarities to others. Ultimately, our brain's function is to keep us alive and healthy, protecting us from anything that is linked to death. Or harm, physically or emotionally.
So let's say you are five years old and playing on a swing. You go too high, get thrown off and land hard on the ground. You bang your knee and mouth, cutting your lip. Blood is now over your face and running down your leg. Slowly, the pain begins to cruise through your body. The knee begins to sting, badly. Your lip starts throbbing. You can't touch it because it hurts so much. You're limping and crying, or screaming and nothing else exists in that moment other than your suffering.
Throughout this whole two minute event, your brain is recording absolutely everything. Everything given to it - the environment. And everything created internally - the emotions. And just like that, the two become intrinsically connected. In the future, when you recall this event, your body will sense or feel the emotions that are attached to the memory. Those emotions never, ever "happened", they were created and experienced internally. Once created, they were locked to the external information and filed away, as one "memory package" in the brain. They will then return in the future as a package. Bring back that memory and you remember the moment and feel the emotions. When you go back to a swing or see one on the TV or in a book, this memory is triggered or retrieved and you remember that day and also feel the emotions.
So now you understand that a memory is a recording of the environment at the moment, a combination of recorded sensory input - what we saw, smelt, touched, heard and tasted - and packaged with that, any emotions that were generated and experienced.
For this reason, when we remember a sad, emotional event like the passing of a family member or the death of our beloved pet, we recall the memory and with it, feel the emotions. This is why, with just recalling a memory like this, we can cry. I am oversimplifying this because the internal neurological world of emotions is a very complex one, but this should be enough to take us forward for the sake of this Blog Key.
Similarly, when we recall a happy memory, like a birthday, our first kiss, winning an award, we remember the event and the attached emotions and we smile or feel good. But note here, we are not living this memory in the present. So why are we smiling, crying, feeling happy or sad when it is only a memory, it does not exist in the present?
The answer to this is also the answer to the next question - why, is our conscious voice, the real us, weaker than the other voice of our subconscious?
It is all down to those things we created. Emotions.
Emotions are arguably, one of the most powerful forces in our lives. They pretty much control almost everything we do in life. Did you ever stop to think about how your life is governed and controlled almost entirely by your inner emotions?
How does this work? Well, remember that the brain is one big prediction machine. As we go about our lives, it scans the environment and processes it, predicting everything it can. This is done in the interoceptive brain network. As it does so, it fires off signals, like traffic lights. Green for, "Go ahead, it's safe". Red for, "Don't do it, it's not safe." Amber for, "Be careful, I'm not completely sure of the outcomes".
It can begin to get complicated here so I'll skirt around this, but suffice it to say that not every prediction is necessarily correct. A person who generates a green light response may find out the situation was actually to be avoided and someone who generates a red light response may turn out to discover everything was actually alright. But this is because the brain only has it's library to pull from and this library if you remember from above, is constructed from your life story. So these predictions are ultimately, unique to you. Even if there are many similarities to other people in general terms.
The interoceptive brain network is comprised of a few areas of the brain, that integrates and processes both external and internal signals. All of this is re-coded and imprinted onto each memory, with a series of attached emotions that were triggered during the recording and then filed away as one package.
It is this package, that is recalled and becomes a "voice", from our subconscious brain, which is played out with a megaphone in our head, our conscious brain, whenever we are considering encountering an event that is similar to one we encountered in the past. This is your brain predicting. It is trying to keep you safe. The brain is saying to you, "Last time you did that, you got hurt. So let's not do it again". With this voice, comes a whole raft of emotions that were filed away with this last memory of getting hurt. You feel these emotions, which are powerful, and together with this voice, you make your decision for the present encounter before you - green light, red light or amber?
Some of us are good at heeding genuine warnings because we are learning not to repeat negative patterns. Some of us are slightly less risk-averse or more self-destructive and actively ignore these warnings but it feels better to "live on the edge" or "I don't care if I get hurt again". There are a whole list of reasons for these behavioural variants, but this is not going to turn into a therapy session, sorry!
I like to say that by nature, (neural wiring), we are risk-averse but by choice, we are risk-takers.
So what can we do? Stage Two
Firstly, we need to recognise that when we sit quietly with ourselves, we will encounter these two 'voices'. One is the real you, the conscious you, the rational, logical you. While the second voice is a series of recorded and filed away memories, each a combination of recorded internal and external stimuli and emotions felt in the past event. This second voice comes out because the brain is trying to predict an outcome based on your current situation or thought process and protect you by giving you the outcome it believes to be most likely. This is stage one and hopefully a big step forward in awareness and understanding from where you were at the start of this blog. Often, these voices conversate. Often, the second voice wins the argument or is the more dominant. Why? Because of the attached emotions. An example of this is battling with internal, negative thought loops about yourself, your potential, your capability, your OK-ness!
Stage two is about writing new memories to be filed away with new emotions so that we build a library of healthy, positive packages for the brain to have access to for future situations. Remember, that the event was one thing and is actually totally separate from the generated emotions. They are two independent entities. This means, like lego, we can separate one from the other and stick on a different emotional piece to the event. But we first need to provide these new pieces of lego. This is the key to stage two.
But why would we do this? Because sometimes, these memories, as mentioned above, create thought loops that are negative, which hinder us, or worse, render us catatonic. Oftentimes, these thought loops are not truth, but lies we have learnt to accept as truth. This happens in exactly the same way.
This Blog Key continues in Part 2, where I will take you through the practical implications and application of Intention Pathways, giving you the tools to start doing it for yourself.
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