Cognitive psychologists and many researchers have recognized that our thoughts have a direct impact on our bodily sensations, emotions, mood, behaviours. When we have certain thoughts (these can be both for positive or negative thoughts, for example, when we think of someone we love, or alternatively when we compare ourselves to someone we think is better than us), we might notice it associated with certain bodily sensations (e.g. maybe a pang in our stomach, or a flutter in our chest area), or perhaps it might shift our mood up or down, resulting in a behaviour change (e.g. to reach out to someone, or to withdraw from others).
Research has shown that we have the ability to form thought patterns based on repetition. For example, after a week of playing tetris in a lab, participants started seeing tetris blocks everywhere. They would dream about tetris. Shawn Achor describes this as the 'positive tetris effect' in his book The Happiness Advantage. When our thought patterns become harmful is when it starts becoming a go-to thought pattern, one that you revert back to in order to explain your situation, or when it starts taking over (e.g. worry for one thing extends to a general worry for all aspects of your life). As your thoughts become more and more entrenched, it actually makes an impact not only on your emotions and behaviours, but even your brain. That's right. Recently, within the field of neuroscience, researchers have discovered that our brains can change based on our thoughts and behaviours (if you're interested in this topic, check out the work of Richard Davidson, Norman Doige, or Rick Hanson). We can rewire our brains based on our thoughts/behaviours. This really emphasizes WHY negative thoughts patterns (e.g. comparison, lack/inadequacy, worry, etc.) can be destructive to our mental health, sense of self-worth and overall happiness in life.
The question then remains, HOW do we do get rid of our toxic thoughts? What is the trick behind banishing these toxic thought patterns? Both research as well as ancient teachings (e.g. in mindfulness) indicates that the more we try to stop thinking about something, or having certain thoughts, the more likely we are to think about it. As you read this, try to stop thinking about white polar bears. Seriously, don't think about the white polar bears, on that iceberg. Did you find that you did have thoughts of them, could almost visualize what they looked like, and in their surroundings? Research has found that trying to suppress our thoughts actually made these exact thoughts rebound with greater emphasis (Wegner has coined the term ironic rebound effect). This emerges in our lives through our intentions to stop bad habits (e.g. smoking, watching too much TV, etc.), and why research suggests changing a habit instead of trying to stop something (check out Charles Duhigg's work on The Power of Habit).
This is what we find, that the way to gain control over our thoughts is to let go of the need to control. The reality is, we have many thoughts each day, and we can not control all our thoughts. The simplest way to banish certain thought patterns (notice I said simple and not easy...) is to become aware of them, and use different strategies (e.g. reframing, visualizing, distraction, self-compassion) to shift your focus to something else. Awareness is a huge first step, and sometimes one that we can gain some insight through self-reflection, self-awareness, or journalling, and other times it is very helpful to ask others, or work with a trained therapist (especially if your thoughts patterns result in you having a depressive episode, anxiety attack or you are currently living with mental health disorders).
As the Founder of Choose Gratitude, I have had the pleasure of working with a range of organizations (from tech, finance, law, to non-profits, small businesses and entrepreneurs, including companies such as CIBC, Gowling WLG, Tangerine, Oracle, The Conference Board of Canada, Young Women in Business) on the power of gratitude. Gratitude reminds us of all the good we do currently have in our life. It shifts our focus to the positive moments in our days, from the smallest things (e.g. that morning sip of coffee, seeing a sunset) to the big things (e.g. cherishing moments with a partner, or savouring unforgettable moments with a parent or grandparent whose health is deteriorating). Some of the known threats to gratitude encompass envy, jealousy, stemming from a tendency for comparison/competition (e.g. I wish I looked more like *them*, their life is better than mine, or even "I am better than them"), pride (e.g. "I'm fine"), a sense of scarcity (e.g. the feeling of never having enough, or never being enough, including thought of "I don't have *this*", "I am not good enough"), and perfectionistic tendencies (e.g. if it isn't perfect, it is not worth it). Pause for a minute here. Reflect on whether you recognize some of these thought patterns in your life.
Gratitude reminds us that it is less about "WHEN I get that raise, make that amount of money, find that husband/wife, have that child, buy that house/car etc., THEN I'll be happy", and more about recognizing what you DO currently have that INVITES joy into your life. The biggest threat to gratitude is underestimating its impact (e.g. "it won't make a difference, why bother with it").
Ways to Practice Gratitude Today
Start a gratitude journal - write 3 things that you are grateful for each day
Take time each day to look at what went well, and why
Write a gratitude letter to someone you are quite thankful for but have not yet expressed it thoroughly, and be specific about why you are grateful for them. Then meet them, and be there as they read it, or read it to them.
Gratitude has been linked in numerous research studies to physical, emotional, and social well-being. Specifically, it has been linked to better sleep, increased energy, less likely to get sick, feeling more relaxed, feeling less envious, being kinder, more social, a healthier marriage, increased self-esteem, more optimistic, better decision-making, increased productivity, and overall more happiness. It shifts our thoughts from the toxic ones that start to take over our minds and emotions, to ones that bring peace and joy.
The truth is you can take ownership over your thoughts through mindful training and intentionality.
It is HARD WORK, and it is worth it.
What will you choose?