Have you ever seen a happy deer?
Stick with me on this…
Deer always look on edge to me, like they are just waiting for something to come along and gobble them up. If you don't believe me then just watch any David Attenborough documentary, you know the ones, the shot cuts to a nervous looking deer like creature and then 10 seconds later it's running for it's life from a hungry lion. Sometimes the lion catches the deer but, if the deer has been scanning for danger and sees it quick enough, he/she can run it's little hooves off and get away.
So animals have good reason to scan for danger and have negative thoughts but do you?
Well it wasn’t so long ago that us humans (a.k.a. cavemen and cavewomen) also spent our days foraging for food and keeping an eye out for those equally hungry sabre-tooth tigers. Now the important bit is, even though sabre-tooth tigers are extinct and we can just pop to Nandos for dinner (don’t judge me), evolutionary wise our brains haven’t changed much. Fast forward to modern day and our brains are still trying to keep us safe so it’s natural for you to have negative thoughts too.
When are negative thoughts helpful?
So take this example, I like to think of myself as skilled crosser of a road. I remember the green cross code adverts from the 80’s and the endless hand holding whilst on school trips. Look right and left a few times, judge the traffic and stride confidently. However like everyone, I’m not perfect and a few weeks ago I was, let’s just say, a little distracted, and I didn’t see the car approaching.
You know that feeling where time slows down, your body feels like you’ve just downed 10 cups of coffee and your tummy is flipping like an Olympic gymnast? Yep, that happened. This was because my ancient negative brain thought, ‘If you don’t get out of the way you are going to get run over and that’s going to hurt” (or words to that affect with the possibility of an expletive). On thinking this it then it did an amazing thing, it hit the ‘Danger’ button in my brain sending my body into the fight/flight or freeze response to help me get out the way.
I say amazing but I know if you have anxiety you are going to fight me hard on this one but let me explain. In this life threatening situation my body was pumped with hormones, these helped my heart beat quicker, moving the blood and oxygen round my body to my main leg and arms muscles so I could run. It then tried to empty my bladder and stomach so I was lighter to run away and it pumped hormones to my brain so I could just focus on the danger. It even pumped hormones around me to help my skin heal should I get hit.
The outcome....in split second I did a sprint to pavement that Usain Bolt would have been proud of and I even had energy to do a little ‘sorry’ wave to the driver. Now whilst I’m not a fan of my body trying to empty my bladder mid road I am super grateful to my brain for being negative and seeing the danger because that could have got a little tricky.
So when are our negative thoughts unhelpful?
When the situation is not actually life-threatening.
Clear. No? See if this resonates…
Situation: Congratulations your boss is so pleased with your work on a recent project that she wants you to stand up at the next company-wide meeting and present your work for 30 minutes! She could have given you a bonus or a raise but no, she gives you the chance to shine (literally with sweat!) in front of 150 people. Now this isn’t life threatening so why do most people have tummy flips, sweaty hands and a pounding chest at the mere suggestion?
This is because your negative brain is first on the scene to assess this so called ‘opportunity” and it’s throwing out some disaster scenarios worthy of an Oscar movie plot.
- “What if I make a mistake in front of all those people, they are going to think I’m a complete idiot”
- “It was just luck that the project did well, they are going to find out I’m a phoney"
- “This is awful, I will forget what to say, I will embarrass my boss and get fired, I won’t be able to pay the mortgage and I will lose the house”
As the negative thoughts flow the brain hits the ‘Danger’ button and the body naturally wants to run and avoid. As you can't literally run away you may find yourself getting a little creative with your excuses...
If you do go ahead then let’s cut to the morning of the presentation. You have been awake worrying since 4am, your mouth is dry, your hands are sweaty and you have been to the toilet four times. Your hands are shaking so much that you think you might start a mini earthquake and you find it difficult to remember your own name let alone any of the presentation.
I'm afraid your negative brain is at it again and having some seriously unhelpful thoughts. In it’s defence, it’s job is to keep you safe and true to form its hitting the ‘Danger’ button and getting you ready to run away, flight or freeze.
So you are now in front of 150 people, your body is heavily signally to you to run away, which sounds like the best option out of a bad bunch. I mean fighting 150 is going to be a tad difficult and, let’s face it, loosing your job is going to be the least of your problems. Freezing is just going to prolong the agony so, yep running seems like the best option but your brain says it’s too late, you’re going to look an even bigger fool if you run away now. So you start to talk and you feel like you are watching yourself do it, it feels slow and your hands shake but as you start to talk you start to gain momentum, you stumble across a few words, and you forget a few points but miraculously 26 minutes later it’s over and you survived!
Phew. What a relief it’s over.
Or is it.
Unfortunately, as we now know, our negative brain thinks first so it gets first dibs on feedback and sometimes that feedback is brutal. As a counsellor I’ve heard many peoples ‘critical voice’ and they range from passive aggressive sarcastic meanies to full on aggressive bullies.
- “I can’t even follow a script, I’m a total failure’
- “That was awful, I forgot what I was saying”
- "Everyone could see me shaking, this is so embarrassing"
Gosh it's exhausting isn't it.
Our example clearly shows how easy it is for our unhelpful thoughts to spiral out of control. If your brain does this day in, day out then it can wreak havoc in your life.
Do you understand the consequences of your unhelpful thoughts?
Overthinking is exhausting and can have serious impact on our emotions, behaviours, physical health and self-worth.
- When those unhelpful thoughts get on a roll we can become consumed with heavy emotions: Fear, shame, guilt, upset, anger can become really heavy and carrying these around for long periods of time can be overwhelming, painful and exhausting.
- We can withdraw and avoid people and situations impacting our career, relationships and general quality of life. We may find ourselves comforting ourselves with cake or going into ultra control mode by over-planning or repeatably checking.
- Whilst I'm a big fan of my brain hitting my "Danger" button to keep me safe it also has a downside. If that button is hit too often those hormones start to slow down our immune system making us more susceptible to illness. The clotting of blood can also increase our risk or heart attacks and strokes.
- If you take a heap of unhelpful thoughts, add some avoidance & comforting behaviours, chuck in some heavy feelings and top this with a low immune system then we have a recipe for low self-worth and confidence.
Still not sure if you negative thoughts are unhelpful and out of control?
Here are 10 signs to look out for....
10 SIGNS YOUR UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS ARE
1) Your thoughts are stuck in a negative loop and go round and round
2) There is no way you would ever talk to a friend the way your inner critical voice talks to you
3) You frequently feel overwhelmed: sad; ashamed; guilty etc
4) Sleep: You have difficulty getting to sleep or you wake up worrying before your alarm goes off
5) You are thinking you're not good enough, your confidence is low or you think you are an imposter
6) You are feeling run down and frequently feel under the weather
7) You frequently feel anxious or stressed
8) You find yourself withdrawing or avoiding people, situations and opportunities
9) You find yourself in the fridge when you're not hungry or reaching for chocolate or wine for comfort
10) You are over-planning or checking: For example: You plan everything like your transport to an event or you triple check you haven't left the front door unlocked once you have left the house
This is all interesting stuff Zoe, but how can I tame my unhelpful thoughts?
Well I’m glad you asked.
So we now know we don’t want to get rid of the negative thoughts because they can literally save our lives but we do want to filter out those unhelpful ones. Thankfully there is a way and I am going to share this with you in my next two blogs over the coming weeks:
- This Blog will help you become aware of your favourite types of unhelpful thoughts. Yep there are types and we all tend to have 2 or 3 favourites. In this Blog I will share mine with you and help you find yours. Why? Because awareness is always the first step in change.
- Once you know your unhelpful thought types you can start to tame them by using simple and effective techniques. I'm going to share these with you and take you through some examples so you can start taming your own unhelpful thoughts.
Can't wait for the next Blogs? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how I can help you or following me on social media for more, blogs, tips, techniques...