Each year the New York Times WELL blog publishes dozens of wonderful health articles. This year my story on controlling negative thoughts made the Top 10 List of best read stories of 2017. It came in at #6. Yay!
And boy was it a year that called for thought control. Read it again here:
The first step to stopping negative thoughts is a surprising one. Don’t try to stop them. If you are obsessing about a lost promotion or the results of the presidential election, whatever you do, don’t tell yourself, “I have to stop thinking about this.”
By acknowledging your negative cycle and accepting it, you are on your way to taming your negative thoughts. Acceptance is the basic premise of mindfulness meditation, a practice that helps reduce stress and reactivity. You don’t necessarily have to close your eyes and meditate every day to reap the benefits of mindfulness. You can remind yourself to notice your thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, without trying to change or alter them right away.
Accepting negative thoughts can also help lessen their weight. Getting mad at yourself for worrying or telling yourself to stop worrying only adds fuel to the negativity fire.
After you’ve accepted a negative thought, force yourself to challenge it.
Let’s say you have a fight with a friend (or partner, or boss). You’re really upset. You might tell yourself, “Oh get over it!” and move on with your day. But….a better approach would be to take a few moments to put words to what you are feeling—perhaps you feel hurt, betrayed, or misunderstood— and then talk about those feelings or write them down.
When you label your feelings, you help reduce their negative impact by increasing your understanding and acceptance of them.
Here’s how this process works in your brain. When you have an argument (or have any strong emotion) your amygdala—the part of the brain that processes intense emotions— becomes activated. The amygdala then triggers a cascade of reactions in the body, like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and shallow breathing. These reactions make you feel more upset and stressed. When you label the feeling, the amygdala calms down.
A study conducted UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, showed in humans how this process works. Subjects were hooked up to an fMRI machine, which monitored their brain activity. When the subjects were shown photographs of faces expressing strong emotions, their amygdalas became active. When the subjects were asked to accurately label the emotion in the picture, the amygdala became less active. What’s more, when the subjects labeled the emotion, their right frontal lobe became more engaged. This brain region is involved in vigilance and discrimination. Naming a feeling, then, seems to transform it from raw emotion into an issue that can be considered and analyzed. This region of the brain is also associated with controlling negative feelings.
By labeling your feelings, you are helping your brain put the brakes on your emotional response. And you are giving your brain the chance to make sense of the feelings you have just experienced.
Naming your feelings can also help you accept them. Labeling feelings gives them validity – they become legitimate files in your emotional desk drawer, so to speak. You don’t have to squash them, or disavow them, you can just allow them to be.
We love our phones. We sleep with them, eat with them and carry them in our pockets. We check them, on average, 47 times a day — 82 times if you’re between 18 and 24 years old, according to recent data.
And for good reason: They tell the weather, the time of day and the steps we’ve taken. They find us dates (and sex), entertain us with music and connect us to friends and family. They answer our questions and quell feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
But phone love can go too far — so far that it can interfere with human love — old fashioned face-to-face intimacy with that living and breathing being you call your partner, spouse, lover or significant other.
Here are some suggested ways to break up with your phone long enough to connect with your partner.
Designate “no cell” zones in your home. With your partner, decide which areas of your home, such as the living room and the kitchen, should be technology-free. And consider eliminating phone use in the car so that you can use that time to talk to your partner about whatever is on your mind.
Try a phone-free bedroom for one week. Yes, it’s fun to check Twitter just before bed, or when you’re sleepless at 2 a.m., but you might be more likely to converse with your partner if the phone were elsewhere. And just the act of favoring your relationship over your phone sends a clear message to your partner.
“Buy some old-fashioned alarm clocks for your bedside table,” Dr. Turkle suggested. “Put your cellphones in a basket in the kitchen.”
Keep phones off the table. When you’re eating at home or in a restaurant, keep phones off the table. The mere presence of a cellphone — with the possibility of it chirping or buzzing at any moment — can inhibit the free flow of conversation, according to a study published last year in the journal Environment & Behavior. Researchers examined how conversations between two people were influenced by cellphones. When a phone was present during a conversation, the partners rated the conversation as less fulfilling and reported less feelings of empathic concern than when phones were absent.
Practice phone etiquette. If you must look at your phone, announce that you are doing so. “I am just checking the score/weather/playlist for two minutes,” shows courtesy and indicates to your partner that you are aware that your attention is shifting. It may also make you more aware of how often you pick up your phone when your partner is present.
Should your partner seem reluctant to let go of ingrained phone habits, consider turning to an objective source. Rather than wag your finger, you might suggest that you both take a closer look at your phone habits.
“Couples need to form an alliance and decide together what are the new rules,” Dr. Turkle said.
Here’s a New Year’s challenge for the mind: Make this the year that you quiet all those negative thoughts swirling around your brain.
All humans have a tendency to be a bit more like Eeyore than Tigger, to ruminate more on bad experiences than positive ones. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that helps us avoid danger and react quickly in a crisis.
But constant negativity can also get in the way of happiness, add to our stress and worry level and ultimately damage our health. And some people are more prone to negative thinking than others. Thinking styles can be genetic or the result of childhood experiences, said Judith Beck, a psychologist and the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Children may develop negative thinking habits if they have been teased or bullied, or experienced blatant trauma or abuse. Women, overall, are also more likely to ruminate than men, according to a 2013 study.
“We were built to overlearn from negative experiences, but under learn from positive ones,” said Rick Hanson, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
But with practice you can learn to disrupt and tame negative cycles.
The first step to stopping negative thoughts is a surprising one. Don’t try to stop them. If you are obsessing about a lost promotion or the results of the presidential election, whatever you do, don’t tell yourself, “I have to stop thinking about this.” “Worry and obsession get worse when you try to control your thoughts,” Dr. Beck said. Instead, notice that you are in a negative cycle and own it. Tell yourself, “I’m obsessing about my bad review.” Or “I’m obsessing about the election.”
Acceptance is the basic premise of mindfulness meditation, a practice that helps reduce stress and reactivity. You don’t necessarily have to close your eyes and meditate every day to reap the benefits of mindfulness. You can remind yourself to notice your thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, without trying to change or alter them right away. Accepting negative thoughts can also help lessen their weight. Getting mad at yourself for worrying or telling yourself to stop worrying only adds fuel to the negativity fire.
After you’ve accepted a negative thought, force yourself to challenge it. Let’s go back to the setback at work. Perhaps not getting the promotion made you worry about your overall competence and you were berating yourself about your skills. Ask yourself, “Why would one setback mean that I am incompetent?” Or you might ask, “What have I done in the past that shows I am actually a very competent worker?” A study conducted at Ohio State University found that this method — known as Socratic questioning — was a simple way to reduce depressive symptoms in adults. In the study, 55 adults were enrolled in a 16-week course of cognitive therapy sessions. Researchers studied videotapes of the sessions and found that the more frequently therapists used Socratic questioning, the more the patients’ depressive symptoms lessened. The study’s authors theorized that Socratic questioning helped patients examine the validity of their negative thoughts and gain a broader, more realistic perspective on them.
If you’re having trouble challenging your negative thoughts, try this approach. Imagine that your friend is the one who received the bad news. What advice would you give him or her? Now think of how that advice might apply to you.
Take action. There will be times when your bleak thoughts are actually valid, but your projections about what’s next are not. Consider this scenario: Your partner has left you for someone else. “My partner doesn’t love me anymore,” might be accurate, said Dr. Beck, but “No one else will ever love me,” is probably not. Now move from a place of inaction to action to counteract the negative thought. If you are worried about feeling unloved, check in with friends and family members. If you are feeling insecure at work, make a list of your accomplishments. Perhaps ask your best friend to write you a letter telling you all the ways in which you are a good, kind person. Reread the letter daily.
Negative begets negative. Dr. Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” said it may be helpful to ask yourself if you are accomplishing anything by dwelling on your negative thoughts. If you’re ruminating on your financial problems during a run around the track in hopes of finding a solution, then that is useful. But fretting for lap after lap about the president-elect or a foreign crisis is not going to accomplish anything.
Take a deep breath. When your negative thoughts are making you feel agitated and overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and then another. Practicing controlled breathing can help lower the stress response and calm anxious thoughts.
Get some help. Finally, if your thoughts are making you feel seriously distressed and interfering with your ability to work and relax, consider seeing a mental health professional. Therapists who specialize in cognitive therapy, which teaches practical ways to cope with persistent and unwanted thoughts, may be particularly helpful. If the underlying source of your thoughts is clinical depression or intense anxiety, you might want to talk with a professional about the root cause of your negative thinking patterns and discuss medications that can be helpful.
Be nice to yourself! While you are sorting out what approach works best for you, give yourself a break and have compassion for your overwrought thoughts.
“The more you dwell on the negative, the more accustomed your brain becomes to dwelling on the negative,” said Dr. Hanson, who suggests asking yourself, “Are my thoughts helping to build me up, or tear me down?”
Take a deep breath in, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.
Congratulations. You’ve just calmed your nervous system.
Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, is one of the quickest ways to feel better. Controlled breathing can reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.
“Breathing is massively practical,” says Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book “Breathe,” to be published in December. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
How controlled breathing may promote healing remains a source of scientific study. One theory is that controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response, says Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”
Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
Many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Dr. Brown, who has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches breathing workshops around the world.
When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response, said Dr. Brown. When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated. “If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” said Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Dr. Brown’s co-author
Here are three basic breathing exercises to try on your own.
Note: If you’ve never tried breathing exercises, you may also want to take a class with an expert. Dr. Brown teaches workshops around the country. His website, Breath-Body-Mind lists his schedule. Dr. Belisa, author of the forthcoming book, Breathe, teaches breathing classes and also provides private instruction at her New York City office. Her website, The Breathing Class, lists her schedule and provides excerpts from her book.
If you have the time to learn only one technique, this is the one to try. In coherent breathing, the goal is to breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute, which generally translates into inhaling and exhaling to the count of six. If you have never practiced breathing exercises before, you may have to work up to this practice slowly, starting with inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and working your way up to six.
1. Sitting upright or lying down, place your hands on your belly.
2. Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.
4. Slowly breathe out to the count of six.
5. Work your way up to practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
When your mind is racing or you feel keyed up, try Rock and Roll breathing, which has the added benefit of strengthening your core.
1. Sit up straight on the floor or the edge of a chair.
2. Place your hands on your belly.
3. As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly.
4. As you exhale, squeeze the breath out and curl forward while leaning backward; exhale until you’re completely empty of breath.
5. Repeat 20 times.
Energizing HA Breath
When the midafternoon slump hits, stand up and do some quick breathwork to wake up your mind and body.
1. Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up.
2. As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up.
3. Then exhale quickly, thrusting your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud.
You know you should spend less time on your devices, but you just can’t resist. That could be because the more time you spend on your devices, the less willpower you have. Got that?
According to TIME magazine, “people who spend a lot of time ‘media multitasking’—or juggling lots of different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli—tend to have less grey matter in a part of their brain involved with thought and emotion control. These same structural changes are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders.”
Could it be that people who digital multitask have less willpower to start with? Perhaps, but TIME goes on to explain that “lots of device use bombards your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in willpower and decision-making.”
So the more you use your smartphone, the less smart you become.
If loss of grey matter doesn’t worry you, how about loss of efficiency?
Every time you leave a task to check a message or a text, there’s a switch cost. It can take your brain 15 to 20 minutes to get back to where it was before you distracted yourself.
Now that you are finished reading this post, read the full article, You Asked: Are My Devices Messing with My Brain?, here.
In Finland (a country lauded for its excellent school system) kids in primary school are given breaks every hour. After 45 minutes of instruction, students ‘take 15’ and run around, socialize, or just do anything but sit still in a classroom.
Tim Walker, an American teacher in Helskini, tried to do away with these frequent breaks for his 5th grade class and was met with foot dragging, rebellion and mind wandering. So he reinstated the breaks. And whatdoyouknow? The children became happier and more focused:
“Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons,” Walker wrote in a post on his blog, Taught by Finland.
What’s more, researchers have consistently found that physical activity helps the brain function better and learn more readily. Charles Basch of Columbia’s Teachers College wrote in his report, Healthier Students are Better Learners, “current knowledge strongly indicates that physical activity can benefit aspects of cognition, thereby favorably affecting educational outcomes. Recent literature reviews on physical activity or physical fitness and cognition have all reached the same conclusion: physical activity (or aspects of physical fitness) favorably affects cognitive functioning.”
Wouldn’t it have been nice (and enlightened) if the Common Core State Standards had incorporated not just new Math and Science learning protocols, but new standards for daily breaks and exercise at school? In Finland, students take breaks every hour not just because teachers think this is a good idea, but because it’s the law.
One of the first questions doctors ask patients who appear depressed is, ‘How’s your sleep?’ That’s because insomnia and/or excessive slumber are tell tale signs of major depressive disorder.
A new study, “Circadian patterns of gene expression in the human brain and disruption in major depressive disorder,” explains why this is so. The study found that the brains of people suffering from major depression are out of sync with normal circadian rhythms. How did they figure this out? Researchers analyzed donated brain tissue from depressed and non-depressed people and found that in the normal brains, the internal clocks ran on time. In the brains of severely depressed patients, however, the circadian clock was so disrupted that day often became night and vice versa.
Why? “We can only glimpse the possibility that the disruption seen in depression may have more than one cause. We need to learn more about whether something in the nature of the clock itself is affected, because if you could fix the clock you might be able to help people get better,” Huda Akil, one of the authors of the study, told Science Daily.
Doctors often prescribe medication or light therapy to help depressed patients get their clocks back to a normal cycle. This is wise medicine. Feeling sad and exhausted is double trouble.
Encouraging news. The spirit of giving is growing among older folks. Senior volunteering hit a ten-year , increasing from 25.1 percent of all seniors in 2002, to 31.2 percent in 2011, according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community service.
Volunteer time is time well spent. Studies find that doing charitable work has a positive effect on one’s physical as well as mental health. Not to mention all the good it does for the beneficiaries of the charity.
Let’s say you’re having a rough day. You walk through the park, the mall, or etc and see happy couples, happy families, and carefree singles enjoying themselves. You might think, “why is everyone happy but me?” Change your thinking and you could improve your mood.
A fascinating series of studies, “Misery Has More Company Than People Think,” found that people tend to think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are. People also tend to think others have more positive emotions than they really do. These miscalculations make people feel lousy. The researchers found that “lower estimations of the prevalence of negative emotional experiences predicted greater loneliness and rumination and lower life satisfaction” in their subjects. Whoa! So if you walk around thinking everyone else is hunkydory and feeling fine, you’re likely to feel isolated and blue.
The brilliant Nobel prize winner Marie Curie wrote: “Life is not easy for any of us.” AND HOW. And continued, “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”