Our thoughts are powerful. They shape our experience of reality and how we interact with the world. Thoughts also contribute to our emotional state, which directly affects our physical health and wellbeing.
Because of this, it’s important to be aware of what we are thinking. We have thousands of thoughts every day. Yet we often repeat the same internal dialogue over and again, reinforcing old narratives. This can keep us stuck in the past, prevent us from connecting fully to the present and limit the possibilities of our future.
The impact of negative thoughts
Repetition is especially powerful when it comes to negative and distressing thoughts. These kinds of thoughts activate our stress response, shifting us into fight-or-flight mode. Regularly thinking negative thoughts creates a state of chronic stress, making it hard for us to process clearly and to connect effectively with the outside world.
It also sets the stage for all kinds of health issues. Our bodies cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and only thinking about it. They produce exactly the same chemistry regardless. So each time we think about something painful or upsetting, our bodies undergo the same detrimental effects as if it was actually happening. And through neuroplasticity, our brains then become more wired to focus on those negative thoughts, further entrenching them.
This has many knock-on effects. Stress takes its toll on every system in our body, impairing our immune, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and endocrine function. It is also a triggering or activating factor for many diseases and disorders.
A positive approach
Fortunately, we can instil positive patterns that have the opposite effect. By becoming aware of our thoughts and managing them effectively, we can forge healthy neuropathways that lead to greater wellbeing.
We are not in control of how life unfolds. But we do have agency over how we think about and interpret it. Often it is our thoughts about something that cause us suffering, rather than the external thing itself. By recognising that our thoughts produce an outcome in our lives, we can empower ourselves to create change.
Elevating and constructive thoughts have a huge impact on our health. They help to shift our bodies into rest and repair mode and promote psychological and physical wellbeing.
By cultivating awareness and flexible perspectives we can learn to let go of old stories, pre-determined thinking and foregone conclusions. This enables us to feel freer and more peaceful. It creates space for us to focus on how we want to think and feel. And it allows us to understand situations with greater clarity and to relate better to others, to truly listen and to see them. From this place, we are more able to act in a kind, intelligent and incisive way, making choices that bring possibility and transformation.
In some cases, we might need professional guidance to support this process. Yet there is also a lot we can do for ourselves. The following practices are helpful resources for promoting a healthy mindset:
- Build good habits
Take time each day to meditate and bring your mind to the present moment. This trains the ability to detach from thoughts and to become less identified with them. With practise, we create a more regulated internal state and are better able to manage difficult thoughts if they do arise.
- Identify negative thought patterns
Become aware of the thoughts that are causing you stress and write them down. These can be past, present or future focused. Be honest and uncensored. Notice the effects of believing the thought and the feelings and associated behaviours that come from it.
- Challenge and enquire
Look at the thoughts on your list. Try to view each one with curiosity and compassion. Invite yourself to question the thoughts. Do they serve you? Are there alternative ways of viewing the situation that could bring you greater peace and ease?
- Choose what to cultivate
Decide which thoughts and attitude you want to cultivate. Positive internal narratives bring hope and the possibility for change. Remember that you have the power to create an outlook that can transform how you relate to life.
- Practise, practise, practise
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Forging new ways of thinking takes time and practise. Keep checking in with your inner dialogue. By regularly observing and questioning our thoughts, we can better catch ourselves when we slip into unhealthy patterns and can learn to think in a more beneficial way.