You may know that negative thinking is hard on your body and contributes to pain and illness. You may even have a doctor or other health care provider who recommends that you “reduce stress” and try to think more positively in order to heal your body.
If so, and you’ve tried to think more positively, you probably also know that this is much easier said than done!
Nothing triggers stressful, negative, fearful thinking like pain and illness.
When you’re health is compromised and you’re experiencing pain or other symptoms that you don’t understand, that hurt a lot, that isolate you and limit your ability to do the things you want to do, and you haven’t found a doctor that can help, it can send your amygdala (or what I like to call your inner lizard) into a tail spin.
The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain, and is often referred to as the reptilian brain (hence inner lizard). It is the part of our brain that stores emotional memory and it is wired to keep us safe. The way it does this is to constantly scan the environment for potential dangers. When it finds one, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system (aka the fight or flight response) to prepare the body to run or fight (or freeze – like a bunny).
This system is very effective when the dangers in your environment come in the form of something you need to run from, or fight with, to stay safe – say a tiger or a bear.
When activated, the fight or flight response causes the release of “stress hormones” from your adrenal glands, including cortisol and epinephrine. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, increases muscle tension, and decreases blood flow to your skin, digestive and reproductive tracts. All things that help you deal with an immediate, present, and real threat to your current safety.
The problem is that in your life now, there is most often nothing to run from or physically fight with. Most of the things that your brain is registering as dangerous are not real, present, or immediate threats to your safety. They are thoughts about what could happen or has happened, and at the moment, they exist only in your mind.
If you’re experiencing pelvic pain, chronic fatigue, or any other chronic or recurring health issue, the dangers your inner lizard is finding may sound something like this:
• “What if this never gets better? What if it keeps getting worse?”
• “I have no control over this. I’m helpless. I have no power over this pain and I can’t stand it. It’s either going to kill me or leave me in a miserable painful, pitiful existence.”
• “I’m doomed.”
• “How will this affect my children, partner, family, etc.?”
• “What if I’m in this pain for the rest of my life? What if no one can help me?”
• “No one will ever want to have a relationship with me.”
• “I’ll never be able to have sex again.”
• “I’ll never be able to have a baby.”
• “I’m damaged.”
• “No one understands. I’m alone and unloved and I always will be.”
• “What am I doing wrong? Why do I deserve
• “How did I cause this?”
• “What if this is the best I will ever feel?”
Because your body doesn’t know the difference between a real threat and one that your mind is creating, these thoughts lead to a continuously activated Fight or Flight response – which increases pain, anxiety and stress. This further alerts the inner lizard to danger, re-triggers the fight or flight response, increases pain, anxiety, and stress – and so on and so on. A vicious cycle is created.
Until you understand it, this cycle is difficult to stop.
If you’ve tried to think more positively and haven’t yet been successful, go easy on yourself. You’re stuck in a cycle that is having a physiological impact on your body that is making it hard to shift.
And rest assured, once you understand what’s happening (which you now do), and you have some effective strategies to deal with it (which I’m going to give you), you will be able to think more positively in no time. It’s actually very doable.
Whether she is complaining, worrying, catastrophizing or criticizing, let your lizard have her say.
Rather than trying to force her prematurely to quiet down, take the time to listen. Remember, her job is to alert you to potential danger and she’s going to feel uneasy until she has the opportunity to do this. Once you listen, her intensity will decrease. She’ll start to calm down, and then you’ll be in a better position to look at what she’s saying and make a conscious decision about how you want to respond.
Anytime you notice you’re thinking negatively, worrying, or just feeling uneasy, bring your conscious attention to your thoughts and let ‘em rip! Write your thoughts down. This gives you the chance to get them out of your head and onto paper where you’ll be able to look at them more objectively.
Don’t beat yourself or your inner lizard up for having these thoughts. She’s just doing her job. Your job is to listen, question, and make some decisions.
Step 2 Identify What Your Inner Lizard Is Doing
Look at the thoughts you have written down and determine the category they fall into. What exactly is your inner lizard doing? Is she worrying, catastrophizing, criticizing, or making negative predictions? Is she trying to fix something, obsessively planning, trying to be perfect, or beating you up for something that’s already happened?
Stepping into the position of questioning and identifying your thoughts engages the dorso lateral prefrontal cortex, the more evolved, conscious part of your brain. Activating this part of your brain inhibits the amygdala’s activation of the Fight or Flight response, which interrupts the vicious cycle of tension, pain, and negative thinking –and gives you space to make different decisions about how to use your mind.
Step 3 Name Her Top 10 Tunes
One of my mentors, Martha Beck, teaches an exercise I love called “Your Lizards Top 10 Tunes”. This step is an adaptation of that exercise.
Once you have your lizard’s stories down on paper, look back over them and name them. Pick names that you’ll remember, possibly ones that add a little humor to the situation. You don’t have to give each thought a name, but group them into common themes and then name the theme or tune.
Here are some examples:
The “No One Understands” tune
The “I Can’t Do It” tune
The “I’m Doomed to a Life of Pain and Misery” tune
Get the idea?
The reason you want to name your lizard’s tunes is because it will make it much easier to recognize how often she sings them. Once you have a name, every time you notice that tune say to yourself, “Oh, there’s the “I’m doomed to a life of pain and misery” tune again.
Trust me, after noticing that your lizard sings the same tune about 999 times a day, in all different situations, and with all different triggers, you’ll start to see the humor in the situation. And those negative thoughts will quickly lose their hold over you.
Step 4: Breathe
While activating the conscious part of your mind will decrease the Fight or Flight Response, there are very effective ways of releasing it directly from your body as well.
The simplest and most effective way to do this is to breathe into your belly.
Bring your conscious attention to your breath and place your hand over your low belly – just below your belly button. As you inhale, allow your belly to fill and expand with air. As you exhale allow your belly to fall as the air flows back out. No forcing, just intending. Sink into your body and your breath. If you inner lizard starts singing her tunes let her know you’ll get back to her in a few minutes but that right now you’re going to take some time to connect to your body. Sometimes it helps to count the breath cycles to activate your conscious mind and keep it engaged in what you’re doing.
These 4 very simple and effective tools will help you think more positively.
Practice them regularly – several times a day – and you will begin to notice a huge difference in how you respond to your negative thought patterns.
As you get into your body and bring your conscious awareness to your inner lizards stories and the negative thought loops in your mind you will begin to detach from them, creating the space you need to make choices about how you would actually like to use your mind. When you have space thinking positively will be much more doable.
You will be able to consciously choose thoughts that support your healing rather than hinder it.
I’ll share more advanced positive thinking strategies with you soon, including tracking how your thoughts are affecting you, and how to create new neural pathways in your brain.
For now, Listen, Identify, Name and Breathe and you’ll and be well on your way to a more relaxed, energized, pain free and positive you!
If you’d like more help overcoming stressful negative thinking, and using your mind in ways that can heal your body (rather than create more stress, tension, anxiety, and pain) check out the Healing Female Pain online program!