What are you REALLY thinking? The Biology of Thoughts, Part I
As humans with an instinct to survive in the wild, we have been programmed to think in ways that will protect us from harm. As children, we developed coping skills and adopted beliefs from others that would keep us safe — which are still with us in our adult life.
The survival part of our brain has tremendous influence on our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, mostly outside of our awareness. According to neuroscience, we are conscious of only 5% of our thoughts! That means that 95% of our thoughts are subconscious, and most of those are stress-inducing thoughts running in a loop, essentially keeping us in “fear mode” much of the time.
So if these are unconscious thoughts, why can’t we just ignore them?
It’s essential to understand how much your thoughts affect your feelings and your actions because the decisions you make day-to-day will steer the direction of your health and happiness!
Have you ever wondered who’s steering that ship?
I’ve developed a chart called “The Biology of Thoughts” to illustrate the journey of our unconscious thoughts.
Let’s take a look at the bottom row of this chart with the box that says FEARFUL WORRY.
This is the “survival path” most of us are taking, whether we know it or not. These kinds of thoughts start not with the fear of real danger or threat, but a running loop in our mind from that programming I just mentioned. The global pandemic we’ve been experiencing is a perfect example of a situation that has our fear-and-worry thoughts activated.
Whether or not you have been directly affected by the coronavirus itself, you may believe that you are handling these difficult times well — and I’m sure you are! You are feeling relatively happy, taking reasonable precautions, and carrying out your life productively.
However, looping continually in your subconscious are thoughts like these: I wonder if that person near me has the disease. Am I doing enough to protect myself? What if the vaccine doesn’t work? How much longer can I take this isolation?
When this thought level is high, you move to the following box: FIGHT OR FLIGHT / CORTISOL / ADRENALINE. Your body is spending a lot of energy on its quest to protect you by producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Also, the blood flow that would normally go to your brain, digestive organs, and immune system is redirected to your extremities so you can fight or flee.
At this stage, you’ve arrived at the box: STRESSED (which can become chronic stress). You may feel physical reactions from all those stress hormones coursing through your body, such as stomach problems, higher blood pressure, or just not feeling 100%. I’ve had people tell me they’ve been feeling this way for a year or more!
I’m sure you can guess that less blood flow to your brain will affect the clarity of your thinking.
This level of stress is not productive. It’s not helpful. It gets in the way of the clear thinking that creates good decisions. It gets in the way of your ability to ACT rather than REACT (the next box).
ACTING means you can take a moment to think clearly about your reactions and figure out your options, possible solutions, and your next best steps to remedy the situation. This cannot happen when you’re REACTING!
How to interrupt the fear-based thinking “survival path”
Do you want to address this stage before you take fear-based actions that are irreversible?
You need tools to interrupt your “survival path” and, more importantly, to stop that loop of thinking that is running under your awareness radar. Here is an exercise to get you started:
I’d like you to think about a situation that’s bothering you. Just pick one specific situation, maybe to do with your health, family, job, finances, work relationships — doesn’t matter. Write down your situation.
On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how distressing the situation is. If it’s super distressing, way up there, choose the 8, 9, or 10 range. If it’s a low level of distress, it would be a 1, 2, or 3. And of course, any number in between that best represents how you are feeling. Write down your number.
Now, ask yourself this question: How willing am I to do something different about this situation? And rate your answer on the same scale we just used. If it’s, “I’m really willing, I’m all in,” then it’s a 10. If you’re not so sure or feeling pretty resistant, then it’s in the 1-3 range. And so on along the scale. Write down that number.
You might have some realizations now like, Wow, I’m more willing to do something to change this situation than I thought which is great. This awareness can help you to take some action in a more positive direction.
If you felt resistance to doing something different, this is a normal response when in survival mode. This is when your brain goes into Yikes! I can’t do that. There’s danger ahead! Remember, the danger may not be rational or relevant to you.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer! The purpose is to gain some awareness of where you are on the scale with this situation so that you can learn something from it.
Write down whatever thoughts come to mind about the exercise you’ve just done. Think about these two numbers that you wrote down. Your thoughts could have something to do with doubts, fears, past experiences, past failures, or messages you recall from childhood. Take some moments to write down your thoughts.
Thanks for playing with me here! Did you get some information that helps you understand how this “survival” thinking can work and what its impact can be?
In Part II, I’ll be writing about the upper part of the Biology of Thoughts chart: how you can introduce new possibilities that will reduce your cortisol and adrenaline levels and increase “happy” hormones like serotonin and dopamine. The results are feeling more relaxed and calm, enabling you to think clearly and take action from your wisest self, with open access to your intuition and guidance and problem-solving memory.
That’s the “happy path” or “thrival path!”For more on how to shift survival thinking so you can be happier, have more satisfying relationships, and be more productive, see my book, Brain Makeover – A Weekly Guide to a Happier, Healthier, and More Abundant Life. (In paperback and on Kindle.)