By Joan Swart, MBA, Psy.D. Forensic Psychology
Dr. Charles F. Glassman, an integrative medical practitioner and author of the “Brain Drain: The Breakthrough That Will Change Your Life,” said, “Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” In other words, your thoughts determine your destiny.
If you think about it, thoughts are really a strange thing. No one has yet scientifically proven where they come from, and they come and go, sometimes without purpose and control. We notice when they pop up, unaware of their origin.
Evolutionary psychologists reckon that thoughts are the products of external stimuli that developed with the human brain since ancient times with the express purpose to motivate us to do something. These thoughts are often automatic, and they instinctively keep us safe and out of harm’s way.
So, how does it work that they can be so negative and lead us to feel bad and act in harmful ways?
Thoughts are Elusive and Mystical
In the history of biosocial science, thoughts have always been an elusive and somewhat mystical concept. What thoughts are made of and where they originate remains a mystery. Modern neuroscience suggests that a thought is formed by a vast number of complex neurochemical reactions. So, when trillions of synapses fire in our brains, a thought is produced. Although thoughts are triggered by external stimuli, a repetition of similar events causes themes to become fixed as enduring beliefs, which can be negative or positive.
According to Psychology Today, thoughts can be idea-like, memory-like, picture-like, or song-like. They are usually short and discrete events. And although some may seem continuous, it is more like a series of pictures threaded together, almost similar to a video. While thoughts remain mysterious from a neuroscientific point of view, experts agree that thoughts influence action.
Information from previous experiences is stored in a cognitive map in the brain, which is triggered when a person comes across a similar situation. In psychology, these are called core beliefs or automatic thoughts. Our brain instinctively tells us, through thoughts, what to expect and which is the best action to take under the circumstances.
Core Beliefs are Invasive Life Changers
Although core beliefs or automatic thoughts can be positive – think “I can do this,” or “There are people who love and support me” – negative thoughts often have the biggest impact on our lives – think “No matter how hard I try, I always fail,” and “No one cares about me.” Why is that?
Because these Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs for short, tend to establish a pattern, are very invasive, and influence our moods and behavior in the short- and long-term.
When we have experienced negative events repeatedly, especially since childhood, our brain develops a framework that connects events and people with unpleasant outcomes. Through it, we form a belief system about ourselves, others, and the world around us. We learn to trust (or distrust), that we are worthy of love (or unlovable), that others are our equals and deserving of respect (or inferior and deserve contempt, or superior and require submission), etc.
When our experiences are habitually adverse, our thinking patterns become negative too and are reinforced by each bad situation that we encounter. We instinctively expect to be abused, cheated, disrespected, ignored, and so forth. Even when our environment eventually changes, we still feel the same about those around us, even though they are not the same people. Often, they don’t fit the same mold than what we had been used to, but we still abuse, fear, distrust, or devalue them without good reason.
This is not good for our own self-concept and our relationships, and we tend to feel bad and have troubling thoughts. As a result, the pressure of our unpleasant thoughts and feelings build until we must relieve the stress by doing unhelpful things to avoid, escape, or punish ourselves or another. We may get angry, do impulsive and reckless things, withdraw, use alcohol or drugs, cheat, etc. All because we do not understand the pressure that our automatic negative thoughts are putting on us and have not taken steps to better deal with it.
Handling Negative Thoughts
Of course, these reactions to our negative thoughts make our lives even more challenging. Now that we know about the sneaky nature of unhelpful thinking, we become more aware and notice negative beliefs when they are triggered. This first step allows us to explore further, recognize the central theme of the thoughts that plague us most, and patiently and deliberately test their veracity so that they lose their power and be replaced by more helpful and functional thoughts.