Dr Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, elegantly documented what every human knows: Whatever you try not to think about you will think about more. He also demonstrated that there was knock-on effect—that you will continue to think about it a lot more.
Wegner also noted the problem is amplified if you are an introspective person with high ideals. You are more apt to be critical of yourself when you encounter these random disturbing thoughts. Yet every time you do battle with such thoughts you give them more power. Paradoxically, the extra energy spent judging the thought enhances this process. The reason? Your brain develops where you place attention. Thus, a random neurological connection resulting in an unspeakable thought now becomes a “parasite” in your brain and strengthens over time. Eventually it becomes a “demon” that you want to rid yourself of.
But these thoughts have nothing to do with who you are. They are who you are not since you originally suppressed them. Unfortunately, these thoughts have become permanently programmed circuits. Similar to riding a bicycle, you cannot unlearn them.
“You are not your thoughts.” We have heard this saying most of our lives. Then why do these thoughts seem like part of our identity? It’s because every anxiety-producing thought elicits a powerful chemical response from your body in the form of adrenaline and cortisol, among many others. This reaction is part of the unconscious part of the brain, which is one million times stronger than the conscious or rational part of the brain.
Humans have evolved around avoiding anxiety and are consistently taking action to remain safe. Unfortunately, we have the problem of perceived danger in the form of troublesome thoughts causing the same chemical reaction as if there were real physical danger.
There are three choices of dealing with anxiety that most of have been taught: 1) suffering 2) suppressing 3) masking. None of these are effective in the long run. Suppressing has the additional characteristic of really firing up the nervous system. Positive thinking is just one of the ways we suppress.
Positive thinking is also part of the conscious part of the brain and has no chance of suppressing your body’s automatic survival reaction. It is a gross mismatch. Although you may keep your mind in a positive place, your body’s response will continue on. And when your body is full of adrenaline you cannot feel peace, love and joy.
The first step in solving any problem is to become fully aware of the true nature and extent of it. It is critical to both understand and feel what is actually occurring. Then you can effectively deal with it. But positive thinking severely clouds one’s awareness.
The key to rewire your brain is to create an awareness of your stressor, briefly separate or detach from it, and then substitute a positive response. Positive substitution is the key to creating more functional neurological circuits.
There is a well-documented tool that I call negative writing. You simply write down your anxiety-producing thoughts and instantly destroy them. You are not destroying them to get rid of them, as these are permanent circuits. It simply allows you to write with freedom. The darker the thoughts that you can put on paper, the more effective the process.
There are many physical benefits, such as improvement in asthma, autoimmune disorders, etc. from this exercise as well as mental. There are over 200 peer-reviewed papers debating the types and merits of the expressive writing. There are still many questions that remain to be answered but this simple tool is remarkably effective in quieting down your response to stress.
Why is writing so effective? I have witnessed hundreds of patients become pain free and essentially all of them began with the writing. I think that the writing physically separates you from your thoughts. Somehow your brain acknowledges the separation and is recognized by the unconscious part of the brain. The space that is created allows choosing another thought that is more functional. With repetition your brain will change.
Although positive thinking is a major problem in keeping your nervous system fired up, positive substitution is necessary and effective in rewiring your brain.