This is the second in a series of podcast scripts I am releasing for those who didn’t get around to listening yet or who prefer to read rather than listen. This was a very personal one for me and the beginning of the realisation that the podcast is a good way to reconcile my thoughts on certain topics. In it I attempt to offer some different ways of thinking about our negative thoughts and feelings.
Here is a link to the original episode released December 18, 2019.
I felt terrible today. I woke up and knew that no matter which side of the bed I got out of, it would be the wrong one. I looked in the mirror and said some horrible things to myself. I was rude to my wife, I didn’t want to play with my children. I just wanted to be alone and miserable. Today the black dog lurked. It happens sometimes. But that’s ok, because I am only human after all. But more importantly, I remembered that how I feel right now is not actually who I am, my mood is a state, not a place. Or more specifically, my mood is a transient state, not a place I live in.
This episode is about those negative feelings we all have sometimes. For some of us they are a crippling burden, and for others they may only appear now and again. This isn’t professional advice and I don’t mean to trivialise what is a serious illness for many people, please, do not substitute my ramblings for seeking help from those qualified to provide it. My intention is simply to provide some insight, to share a few of my feelings and a couple of strategies that might help you to manage the negative thoughts that sometimes pop up in your life. I hope to remind you that you are not alone when you also feel down sometimes. Negativity is a natural emotion, just like happiness, anger and apathy. It comes and goes. It doesn’t help us though and it should be avoided as much as possible. But you can’t avoid it by not facing it, understanding, and accepting it.
The important thing is not to let it become you.
But, to feel negative sometimes is ok.
Here is a bit of my negativity.
There are many reasons why I shouldn’t have started this podcast, and those same reasons make me feel like stopping every time I begin to write another episode. I say to myself “no one will listen anyway, “ “what the hell do I have to say that anyone would be interested in?” “Who am I to preach about life when I know fuck all about it myself” “God this will sound boring.”
Things of that nature. What things do I say to myself so that I can carry on and do it anyway?
“I enjoy this, I’m doing this for me, what difference does it make if no one listens? Why be afraid of doing this if, it isn’t hurting anyone and what if one person enjoys what I share? If I reach just one person and it means something to them, in that one moment, then it’s worth it.”
And so here we are. In the words of the great Pink Floyd, “is there anybody out there?
It’s is not easy to believe in yourself. Negative thoughts seem to be a default mode for most, if not all of us. Doubt lurks deep within us, it is an alter ego constantly trying to keep us down. That makes every achievement all the more remarkable, because every single person that rose to success had to fight back that voice inside that said, “don’t put yourself out there, take the easy road, keep your head down, it’s not worth it, you can’t do it, you’re not worth it.”
Why is that? Where does that voice come from?
I don’t think I can limit myself to just one cliché in this episode so here’s the first:
We get one chance at life. This is it. You are here, right now, you have no idea why, how it came to be that you got this chance at life. Billions of years passed, then you arrived. For a cosmic second you are here. Then you’ll be gone, for billions more years, time will march on. You have a choice then, to not care about your life because it is so insignificant, or to care about it more than anything because you won the lottery by being here and you have so little time to experience it. So keep that context in the back of your mind. Set that as your anchor, the little reminder that no matter how consumed you become with life and your thoughts. All of it is a gift but it will eventually be taken away, and soon.
So the thing about all of those negative thoughts is that they aren’t real, they are simply that, thoughts. Your choices are all that is real. You can’t control what happens in life, you can plan and prepare and anticipate, but shit happens to all of us.
What happens next is a mindset.
The negative thoughts that seem to swell up inside us are not real, they aren’t us, they are our fears and insecurities manifesting themselves to protect us from the potential for harm. Harm to our pride, fear of embarrassment and failure, fear of uncertainty, of not being good enough, or capable. But those fears do not have our best interests at heart, they are not there to help us reach our potential, they are there to keep us small and insignificant because being small and insignificant is safe. But, you have a choice. Do you choose to listen to those negative thoughts and let them define your life? Or do you acknowledge them, set them to one side, and move forward anyway?
When I have negative thoughts I don’t have to pretend they’re not there, but I don’t have to let them be my present and become my reality.
Echarte Tolle, known for his book, The power of now, refers to innate negative thinking as the “pain body” which he describes as “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.” He suggests that this accumulation of negative energy tends to pop up from time to time and tries to bring us down, consuming our thoughts with more negative thoughts. Further, he believes negative energy affects entire populations through their so called “collective pain body.” I’m pretty sceptical about some of Tolle’s thoughts, but I do see his point, even if I think the idea of energy fields is total bullshit.
I believe in the brain as the centre of our being. It is a jelly-like mass of mostly fat which controls, well everything, including how we feel. Sorry to be unromantic, but we don’t actually feel with our heart, or our stomachs, we feel with our brain. (Update: there are actually neurons in the gut, so we do actually feel butterflies in our tummy after all!) We think and feel with our prefrontal cortex, or PFC, that’s the part of your brain behind your forehead where conscious thought takes place. But the PFC is fed by inputs from all over our brain so it’s no wonder we are constantly bombarded with thoughts that seem to emerge from nowhere. From one moment to the next we could be thinking about what we are looking at, where we need to be in an hour and what we are going to have for lunch, or we could be thinking about that time in kindergarten when we were three years old and we used to jump off the fort shouting “Geronimo!” (Actual memory I have of kindergarten). We have no more of an explanation for why such random memories and thoughts appear than we do for why sometimes we just feel shit. But, underlying it all is a complex, but relatively well understood interaction of chemicals. Our emotions are literally chemical reactions in our brains. Minute changes in chemical concentrations and interactions are responsible for every thought and process that takes place in your brain. It is an organic, biological process. It is so amazing as if to sound like magic, but it is just chemistry. You are your own unique chemistry set, playing out in that lump of jelly in your head.
Another thing about the brain, as remarkable as it is, is that it likes patterns and repetition. Memories, personality, behaviour, they are all formed through long established neural pathways that connect the various regions of the brain. We are the result of those connections established in the womb, in childhood and throughout our lives. Negative thoughts are merely a representation of some of those neural pathways. Certain experiences tend to forge deeper pathways that connect other areas of our brains, so when we are stimulated by a sound, a sight, a smell, or a combination of words, those old pathways light up in totally unrelated contexts. We can quickly be whisked away to some place, or feeling that was formed long ago, lying dormant in the recesses of our brain. That is a powerful thing and it serves a useful evolutionary purpose. When we see a lion, we run! We need to remember things. Unfortunately, many of those memories and experiences are not positive, yet they are inextricably tied to other neural pathways and may appear when we least want them too. But, just as every thought is a phantom burst of chemicals, so is every memory and emotional connection. They are not real, tangible things, they have no power in the physical world beyond your brain.
There is a wonderful, freeing, sense of detachment that comes with thinking of the brain, as ironic as it sounds, as the physical hub of our thoughts. Feeling and emotions are things that happen inside our brain as a result of chemical interactions. When you feel butterflies in your stomach, you are actually feeling chemicals in your brain (update: fake news!) , when you feel love, sadness, anxiety, fear, it is all happening in your brain. All of that negativity that consumes you, that holds you back from realising your potential is nothing more than chemicals in your brain. You have no more control over the chemical interactions than you do over your gall bladder, pancreas or liver. Processes happen well beyond the conscious awareness that take place in your prefrontal cortex. Doesn’t that put a different perspective on mental health? Negative thoughts and feelings are nothing more than a process, and while we can’t stop thoughts from occurring, we can make a choice with what to do with them.
If we can identify the value of thoughts when they appear then we are well placed to ignore those that offer us no benefit. That voice in your head that says “you can’t do this” or “you don’t deserve this” can be countered by the same voice in your head! “Ha! I see what you’re up to brain and I’m not buying it.” Maybe you didn’t eat well the day before or more importantly, you didn’t get enough sleep, good quality sleep, for whatever reason, your brain is feeding you bullshit, but that’s ok, it’s not real, it’s just chemicals talking through your PFC and you have the ability to divert that negative energy and replace it with rational thought, or better still, ignore it altogether and get on with the task of living. You can say to yourself, and more specifically to your brain, “you can play your games today brain, but tomorrow the chemical balances will have changed and I’ll be feeling better. So I won’t waste time worrying about the negative thoughts that seem to be coming today, I’ll just accept them for now, they will pass, and tomorrow will be better.”
That is actually how it works, really.
For those, who struggle with negative thoughts often, and there are many, there are two approaches that try to help. One is to alter those chemicals interactions with medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI’s, are what we know as anti-depressants. They work on the principle of suppressing the natural mechanism in our brains that try to recycle chemicals for later use. Serotonin is an important one that affects the positive / negative balance of our mood. Messages that pass between the neurons in our brain do so via chemicals known as neurotransmitters, one of which is serotonin. Certain transporter molecules try to gather up the excess serotonin and recycle it. Sometimes those recycling molecules get carried away and they scoop up the serotonin too early, or scoop up too much of it and that ends up affecting our mood. The synapses, the nerve endings between neurons when those chemical messages are sent and received, may become conditioned to low levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters and so behave in unusual ways. SSRI’s try to interrupt the recycling molecules so serotonin levels are maintained. The prescription of SSRI’s is a very clinical, engineering like solution for depression, and that’s the approach typically taken by psychiatrists. The problem is there is no consensus on exactly how SSRI’s work, or even if they do, which is amazing considering how commonly they are prescribed. In cases of major depression SSRI’s are reasonably effective, but for most of us, they’re no better than a placebo. And they are often reported to dull ones personality, flattening out mood rather than elevating it. SSRI’s are not a wonder drug, they have side effects. They may be helpful, but they also may not be worth it.
The other approach is to try to think your way out of negativity by reprogramming your response to negative thoughts and feelings. It is about either avoiding situations which may give rise to those thoughts, or understanding them for what they are and implementing conscious strategies to manage them. This is the more typical approach of psychologists and a therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. That’s essentially what I’m talking about here, understanding that there is an underlying physical process taking place and reframing your thoughts to either disregard negative thoughts or keep them in context.
Here comes the present again. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. It’s very hard to be anything but neutral in the present moment because it doesn’t come with any baggage and it doesn’t care about the future. It is ok to have negative thoughts, it is normal and natural and something that happens to everyone. It is also ok to sit with those negative thoughts, appraise them in a detached kind of way and see them for what they are. But, give yourself a break and know that soon enough they will pass and you’ll feel better. Maybe after a good night’s sleep, or after you get some exercise or meet up with your friends. Those thoughts do not define you, they are not real and they are most certainly are not you. They are a fleeting moment in time which you just happen to be a witness too.
This approach may not work for you. Just knowing that there is a biological process taking place in your brain may be too abstract to help you manage those negative thoughts and feelings. So there are other techniques, but like everything worthwhile, they take training and practice to become proficient at. CBT provides a tool kit of mental strategies and it is far from my expertise to provide those here, but they do exist and there are professionals able to help you with that if you need it. Your family doctor is the best place to start and they can refer you to the right people. But, even just identifying that how you feel is fine, it is normal for everyone to have some form of negativity. When it is not at a point where it needs clinical management, then give some thought to what I’ve mentioned here.
Sometimes we don’t feel right, call it a bad mood, call it a funk, call it the wrong side of the bed. It’s just the way it is sometimes. But don’t overthink it, accept that that is you for now, maybe the next few hours, maybe for today, but it will pass.
Thoughts are simply that, thoughts. They are not real things, they are transient apparitions that appear randomly and disappear just as quickly. You don’t need to put weight on them, or take them seriously, just observe them, and let them go.
Every thought, feeling, emotion and behaviour happens in your brain as a result of complex chemical interactions. When your head is swimming with negative thoughts, try to remember that it is just chemicals and biology going on up there, it is part of you, but it is not you.
Choose how you respond to your thoughts and feelings, don’t become a slave to them. Some thoughts inspire us, fill us with joy, laughter, hope. Others do none of those things. Let those thoughts go, consciously choose how you want to feel, or, if you just don’t feel great, picture the you that feels better, it’ll be reality soon enough.
Exercise, as much as possible, be disciplined and stick to a routine, have close friends, be open and honest with people, listen to them, it’s hard to worry about yourself when you’re thinking about others.
Give yourself a hug, give someone else a hug.
You are not a slave to your thoughts.
You are not alone.