The quality of our thoughts is fundamental to our health, happiness & ultimately our future. Here is how, with some tips on staying positive
The Power of Thoughts
We spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with our minds. It’s therefore logical that the quality of our thoughts has an impact on our wellbeing. However most of the time we hardly pay attention at all to what is going on in there. Think about how you speak to yourself sometimes - how many times have you called yourself stupid? You wouldn't talk like that to your friends and family. We beat ourselves up and call ourselves names when we should really be nicer to ourselves.
Recently I came across a quote which really brought home to me the importance of being aware of the quality of thoughts:
“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny” Swami Sivananda
What this is telling us is that our thoughts shape who we are and how we interact with the world around us. Not only that, they define who we will become. It's important to make them positive.
Physiological Impact at the Cellular Level
The mind is closely linked to the body, and with the constant stream of thoughts running through our minds come the physiological responses. It's very easy to find examples of physical symptoms that go hand in hand with emotionally charged thoughts - the tension headache when you're worried or stressed about something, the knot in your stomach when contemplating that looming deadline, the physical heat we feel in our body when we're fired up and angry... Every minute of the day your body is reacting to the thoughts in your mind.
It has been proven that just thinking about something can cause the body to release certain hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers are responsible for all of our major bodily functions, such as digestion, heart rate, sleep and immunity, and have an impact on the body right down to the cellular level. Our thoughts therefore have a direct influence on our cells.
When you fill your mind with negative thoughts, the emotions and reactions they generate have a detrimental impact on the whole body. Let's take the stress response as an example - hormones like cortisol are released into the blood stream, which over time can be damaging. On the other hand, when we feed our minds with positive thoughts the chemicals that go alongside them, such as dopamine and serotonin, create a more favourable environment in our bodies and we can thrive.
Other evidence of the power of the mind on the body has been found in the form of the placebo effect, where research has shown remarkable responses to pills and medicines which are indeed complete fakes. This is remarkable, and shows us just how much influence we in fact have over our physiological wellbeing.
The Science of Habit
In essence, most of our daily activities are defined by our habits, or patterns of behaviour that we have built up over time. Physiologically, thoughts patterns and habits are merely groups of neurons that habitually fire together.
The science behind habit is partly explained through the concept of neuroplasticity and neural pathways. The neurons in our brains connect together to form chains, or pathways. Whenever we have a new experience, a new pathway in the brain is used. Each time we have a thought, it initiates a chain reaction of neurons firing in the brain, sending a stimulus down a pathway. The more we repeat a thought, the more this reinforces and strengthens that pathway. It can be seen as similar to a groove in our mind - the more we use it, the deeper the groove becomes.
So does this mean that, once we get into negative patterns, we are doomed? Not in the slightest. We may not have much control in the short term over our existing neural pathways and therefore the way we react to things, but our ability to form new ones is fully within our control. The more you do something, the better you get at it, so start cultivating positive thought patterns and eventually it will become default.
How To Be Positive
There are some simple steps you can take to start sowing more positive seeds in your mind:
1) Live in the present
The past is gone and the future is uncertain, so dwelling on them is pointless. Taking positive steps right now is the most important thing we can do to improve our lives. Thoughts of the past and future often cause us stress and anxiety, but they are both non-existent in the present. So what is the point in worrying? Only through focusing our efforts on our actions in the present moment can we make a real difference.
2) Keep a diary
This is a great way to bring your awareness to what is going on in your mind. Try to write something down each day, or in those moments when you experience strong reactions, to summarise how you feel. Over time you will start to see patterns emerging. The more you see, the more able you will be to identify them as they occur and nip them in the bud.
3) Pay attention to your surroundings
Be aware of the company you keep and the environment you are in. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Work in a space which encourages your wellbeing. If you hate your job, change it. If you stay in a negative environment, you will come out negative. Take positive steps to make your external environment as favourable as possible.
4) Think the opposite
When you find yourself falling into a negative thought spiral, force yourself to think the opposite. It sounds superficial, however positive affirmations sow positive seeds and literally re-wire the brain, as we saw earlier through neural pathways. Replace the old negative ones which serve nothing with new positive ones. Even if you don't feel like they're true, fake it till you make it. This TEDTalk from Amy Cuddy illustrates this point nicely.
5) Don’t lose your sense of humour
If something bad happens, try to see the funny side. The chances are it’s not as bad as it seems – picture yourself looking back in the future at how ridiculous and insignificant the situation was.
6) Stay vigilant
One negative thought is often followed by a train of them. Pay attention and nip them in the bud as they arise, before they have a chance to develop into something bigger. That diary will help you here.
7) Everything is temporary
Ultimately, remember that everything is changing anyway, so this too will pass. The chances are that in 24 hours, you won't even remember what was bothering you. This diffuses the root cause of the negativity and allows you to remain detached from it.
With anything, establishing a regular habit is key, however over time and with dedication, you will start to see a difference. Also remember to be gentle with yourself - with the punishing speed and expectations of modern life, it is easy to become impatient and revert back to old patterns. The first step is to notice what is there in your mind and once you have that, you're already half way there.
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