In this excerpt from Dr. Joseph Annibali, M.D.'s new book, Reclaim Your Brain: How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Under Control, the leading psychiatrist explains why getting negativity under control is crucial to a calm, mindful brain — and how to do it.
When I first began to explore the "busy-brain" phenomenon — or when a chaotic brain interferes with our attention, focus, and mood — I quickly recognized a pattern in those who have it. Many of these individuals also struggled with excess negativity. It was as if not only were their brains caught in a loop but that loop was almost uniformly negative.
Why would our brains make us so negative? The reality is that the brain is hardwired for negativity. Studies of brain development and observations about early traumas support this.
But negativity is not unalterable. First, it’s important to recognize that we all have an inner critic or judge inside our heads. Second, it’s important to understand that the critical stranger actually is an invader. Because the negativity isn’t you; it’s your brain activity.
Let me reemphasize that: You are not just your brain; you are not just your thoughts. Why do I make this claim? Well, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The brain is a key part of who we are, yes. But we find that the real us is beyond our thoughts.
This is why Buddhist and other meditative traditions claim that we find ourselves only beyond our thoughts, apart from our thoughts, in a state of mental peace, often in meditation or silence. Our heart beats, but we are not our heartbeat. Our brain thinks, but we are not our thoughts.
That’s why you can learn to separate yourself from the rampant negativity in your brain. And in separating yourself from your poisonous negativity, you can calm your busy brain.
Here are some of the strategies I recommend:
1. Detach yourself from the negative thoughts.
Remember, “You are not just your brain; you are not your thoughts.” Thoughts arise automatically, just like the heart beats automatically and we breathe automatically. We don’t control our thoughts. And yet they can control us if we let them.
If we remind ourselves that our brain makes our negative thoughts, that we are not our brain, we gain much-needed distance from our negative thoughts. They happen; that’s it. Don’t fight them.
But we can think about our thinking. We can put things into perspective: Our thoughts are not facts. With practice and experience, we can learn to more automatically gain distance from our negative thoughts. Try observing the flow of negativity in your mind, the way you might sit on the bank of a stream and watch the water flow by. You might even view your negativity as a scientist would: “Oh, how interesting that there are self-critical thoughts occurring now.”
Another way to create distance and detachment is what I call the “Ronald Reagan Approach.” In his presidential election debates with Walter Mondale, Mr. Reagan repeatedly and quite effectively said to Mr. Mondale, “There you go again.” Tell yourself, “There’s my brain being negative again.”
2. Distract yourself.
Pour yourself into something productive and positive, or at least seek out a change of gears.
When we're preoccupied with something we enjoy (a crossword puzzle, a good book, a game of catch) or even just find something to absorb us (take a coffee break or talk to a colleague), it gives our system a chance to calm down and our thoughts a chance to refocus from negative to more neutral, if not positive.
3. Remember your values.
Remind yourself what your values are. If you are ruminating over negative thoughts and decisions, refocusing on your core values will help reduce the negativity.
4. Practice gratitude.
Embrace an attitude of gratitude. Write down three things for which you are grateful. Studies show that simply writing down what you are grateful for can really change the brain and improve mood, moving you away from negativity.
5. Shun the "shoulds."
Get out of what I call the “Cold Shower of Shoulds.” Among the torment of negative thinking that afflicts us often is a constant flood of “shoulds”: I should do this ... I should do that ...
This Cold Shower of Shoulds is nothing but destructive. Once we become more aware of our tendency to stay too long in this destructive shower, we have a better chance of stepping out of this negative shower stall.
6. Mentally twist the dial.
Imagine that there's a dial on the side of your head that you could use to turn down the negative thoughts. Actually envision yourself turning down the negativity by twisting the dial.
7. Have a laugh.
Can you find the humor in what the negative critic is saying to you? Laughter can be the best medicine. Make fun of the negative thoughts. Laugh at them and yourself for believing them ... but make sure that you do so gently.
8. Power up your problem solving.
If the negative thoughts relate to a clear problem (e.g., a serious health issue), make a list of the steps you can take to deal with the situation. Break down the potential solution into small, achievable steps you can take to improve things.
9. Find the positive.
Try to find the positive in what seems to be a negative situation. Turning around a negative thought often shows us another side of the situation. A problem or crisis can even be an opportunity. Search for it.
Take slow, deep breaths. This relaxes the body and the brain and reduces brain overactivity.
11. Move your body.
Do something physical; exercise. Don’t stay stuck and immobile, literally and metaphorically.
Reprinted from Reclaim Your Brain by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, Joseph A. Annibali, M.D.
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