Thinking Positively About Positive Thinking
‘If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.’ Henry Ford
The power of positive thinking is incredible, but the idea that just by changing your thoughts you can change your life can sometimes seem overly simplistic or too good to be true.
Similarly, when we are depressed or struggling with anxiety and we are advised by well-meaning friends or glossy magazines to ‘think positively’, these words can seem patronising and trite, but the fact is that positive thinking really does work and the science is now there to back the idea up.
In order to understand how positive thinking really can change our lives, we first need to know what exactly is going on in our brains that causes us to think negatively in the first place.
To begin, let’s look at the amygdala: put simply it’s the primitive part of our brains that is concerned with our survival. The amygdala is constantly vigilant; looking out for potential dangers and ensuring we’re prepared to tackle them. It can only operate within the parameters of anger, depression, anxiety, or a combination of all three. It’s also responsible for the flight/flight/freeze responses to apparent or real dangers.
The amygdala works closely with another primitive area of the brain called the hippocampus which is concerned with storing behavioural responses. The hippocampus isn’t able to discern whether these responses have been helpful or beneficial to you; it simply sees that behaving in the way you did meant that you survived the situation. The next time you’re in the same or a similar scenario, the hippocampus will quickly encourage you to repeat the behaviour as it thinks this will ensure your survival again.
We call this recall of previous responses and behaviours ‘pattern-matching’.
Crucially, neither the amygdala or the hippocampus can tell the difference between imagined responses and real ones; they just tend to assume that all incoming data relates to events happening now, even though they may only be taking place in our imagination.
The beauty of understanding this is that we can now see that all we need to do to provide our brains with a replacement to the current negative pattern-match is to imagine a new, positive one.
A good example of this can be seen in a study undertaken by scientists at Harvard University led by the neuroscientist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone. He took two groups of volunteers and gave one group a piano and a little five-finger exercise to learn. He gave the other group the sheet music but no piano. After a week of practice, he found that the neural pathways in the group of volunteers who had actually played piano, and those in the group who had just imagined playing it, had developed to exactly the same degree. This proved that mere thought has the ability to alter the physical structure and function of our brains.
Along the same lines, imagine that at some point during your life you had an experience during a presentation at work that left you feeling nervous, vulnerable and it ruined your self-confidence. The next time you are invited to do a presentation at work, your brain will immediately and subconsciously pattern-match to the previous feelings/behaviour and encourage the same response again. You’ll probably instantly feel anxious, sick, and like you can’t do it; that you’re going to fail again.
If we recognise these uncomfortable feelings as part of a pattern-matching process, only then we can start to alter our minds by visualising ourselves behaving differently and more positively in the same scenario. This will give our brain a nice, new, positive pattern-match instead.
So, the next time you are invited to present at work, start to visualise it going well. Visualise in as much detail as you can and keep it positive. Even if it seems impossible at the outset, visualising it enough times will create a nice, strong pattern-match for your brain to refer to instead.
Furthermore, our vigilant primitive brains are also constantly listening to our ‘self-talk’. If we repeatedly tell ourselves, ‘I hate presenting in meetings. I’m hopeless at it. I always get really severe anxiety’, then that is exactly how we will respond when the meeting takes place. Start to notice your self-talk, particularly the negative instructions you’re feeding to your brain. As we like to tell our clients, ‘Be careful what you think; your brain is listening!’
Once you start noticing these negative messages, you can start to override them by replacing them with positive affirmations or mantras, even if they seem completely far-fetched at the outset: ‘I am confident about the meeting. I feel strong. I am prepared and ready to present’. Doing this is essentially giving your brain a clear instruction of how to behave when your meeting comes about.
One simple tip to help you on your way to thinking more positively is to try to change every ‘should’ to a ‘could’. ‘Should’ carries guilt and negativity. ‘Could’ carries hope and possibilities. This is such a simple change to make in how you talk to yourself but will make a huge difference.
Aim to start every day with a positive affirmation. End every day by recalling at least three positive things that have happened during your day. Treat failures as lessons. Look for the humour in bad situations. Surround yourself with positive friends, mentors and colleagues. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.
In our Clinical Hypnotherapy practice, we use hypnotherapy to help our clients reframe past pattern-matches in to new, positive responses. Whether it’s for getting over a fear of flying, becoming more motivated, or improving the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
We work with our clients to visualise what they would be doing differently if the problem had disappeared, then we feed this information back during hypnosis to aid the brain in the storing of that new, positive response.
As with anything that’s really worth doing, training your brain to think positively is not easy. It takes practice, but with this comes new, positive neural pathways, new, constructive pattern-matches, and a new, happier way of living.