Mental or emotional stress is one of the primary factors that triggers your fight-or-flight response. There are a number of factors including things like overextending yourself, pressure to be the best, comparing yourself to others, ruminating and worrying, lack of purpose, and unresolved trauma and isolation. We are going to focus on one specific behavior that we often see, and is one that (with some mindfulness) we can learn to control Negative self talk.
The way you talk to yourself can elicit a stress response similar to what you may experience if you run into a bear. For real - how crazy is that?!?! And how important is it that we learn to talk kindly to and about ourselves. Negative self-talk refers to your inner critic (“I am an idiot”, “I can’t do this”, “I always mess this up”, “I have no self-control”, “everyone hates me”, “this happened because of me”). But this can also take on several other forms such as perfectionism, filtering, mind-reading, self-guessing, personalizing/blaming, and even catastrophizing. It often mimics the voice of a parent, friend, or partner that has hurt our feelings. So, that can be a lot to unpack…
Think about the moments that should be joyous – receiving a promotion, hugging a friend, getting a new personal record. Then think about how many times, shortly afterwards, the joy fades and the quest for more continues. The thoughts of what is coming next, how can I do better, how do I get a little more out of it all? The solution is simple - we need to rewire our brains. We need to expand our capacity for positive emotion, which can lead to a more pleasurable life (and isn’t that all we are really striving for?)
Start by simply noticing what you are saying to yourself and then label that thought as “negative” or “positive”. This will give you an idea of when and how often you are doing it and give you a chance to stop the thought process. Stand up, stretch and breath, or step outside for a 10 minute walk. Pay attention to the sky, the cars going by, the trees… whatever is around you. Do something to break the negative thought process. This will give your nervous system a break.
The problem with constantly striving for more is that it can detract from experiencing (and subsequently enjoying) the now. When you run into negative thoughts (especially ones that keep coming up) ask yourself how true it is. For example, if you think “I’m never going to get better at this”, think of a time you surprised yourself and did improve on something. Take a step back and look at the little things that you have done to get better already (we call these Bright Spots!)
It’s easy to overemphasis what is missing and underemphasize or simply underappreciate what is present. This practice of striving can actually rewire our brains and thus impact our ability to experience positive emotion.
Finally, challenge yourself to add a positive thought to counter the negative one and do so in the third-person (you, he, she). Research has shown that speaking to yourself in the third-person provides some psychological distance from the experience, which helps you to regulate your emotions. So if you are stuck on thinking “I am fat” immediately replace it with something that you like about yourself like “you are strong”. Each time you do this, a little water leaves your bucket.
Give it a try and tell me how it goes.
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