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David Baxter

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Switching out of negative thoughts to beat depression
Monday, 10 September 2007
by A. B. Curtiss1

Everybody has negative thoughts that tend to pop up without warning. This is not a terrible problem as long as you don't think that thought a second time, or a third, or a fourth. A negative thought is just a thought. We can't help them popping up. But thinking a thought over and over again is behavior. We can change our negative thinking behavior.

And we should change it. When we focus on negative thoughts too long, we trigger the fight-or-flight response whose whole duty is to prepare us for action by dumping stress chemicals in our brain. We end up in a high state of alarm that we call stress.

Stress is hard on the body and can quickly deplete our metabolic energy leading to feelings of helplessness and despair. Stress leads to depression. So how do you stop the negative thoughts from leading to stress? You have to stop the negative thoughts in the beginning, before they lead to stress. This is a simple thing to do, but it is not so easy to do.

It's not so easy because negative thoughts can actually train your brain to think more negative thoughts. The unintended consequence of thinking a negative thought is that you give your brain 'instructions' to think more negative, depressing or anxious thoughts that can lead to more stress.

This is because the brain works by learned association (think 'black' and the thought 'white' will fire up; think 'salt' and the thought 'pepper' sparks up.) Learned associations determine your feelings and other responses, like your mouth watering when you think of lemons. Your mouth wouldn't water at the thought 'lemon' unless you had some prior experience (association) with its juicy, tart flavor.

A thought that is triggered will cause similar, associated thoughts to spark up in your brain, like attracting like. Thinking a negative thought actually instructs your brain to get in touch with other associative negative thoughts and when you let maverick thoughts turn into thinking behavior, then you are in danger of triggering the fight-or-flight response. It helps to know a little bit about how your brain works so you can avoid giving it wrong instructions.

When we think the first negative thought, it is learned association that causes our brain to remember and activate all the other associative negative thoughts we have stored. As one negative thought sparks up another, we get more and more down on ourselves. Anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response and causes stress chemicals to flood into the brain. This can quickly turn into depression.

We can stop thinking negative thoughts by choosing to think neutral thoughts instead. If we are able to change our thoughts and pay attention to something else other than the negative thoughts, we are also giving 'instructions' to our brain to pay attention to something else other than the negative thoughts. The brain's communications can change instantly just because we decide to change what we are thinking.

One method that helps us accomplish this is a simple cognitive behavior mind exercise called brainswitching.

Since a human being can only pay attention to one thought at a time (we have only one attention), while you are thinking a neutral thought, you cannot at the same time think a negative thought that causes the brain to produce stress chemicals. As you concentrate on a neutral thought, the negative feelings therefore lessen. This is the reason a soccer player can break a bone during the heat of a game and experience no pain until after the game is over. Positive concentration on the game distracts the player from receiving the brain signals that are supposed to alert them to the pain of their injury.

The cognitive behavior technique of brainswitching was developed for this very reason. It 'jams' the focus on negative feelings until the brain shifts out of 'anxious' to more 'normal.' How do you brainswitch?

Just choose a nonsense or neutral thought in advance, to have 'at the ready' whenever a negative thought hits. It could be a mantra, a silly song, a repetitive word like yes, yes, yes, a nursery rhyme like 'Row, row, row your boat,' or even a neutral word such as 'green frog' that you concentrate on instead of concentrating on the thought 'I shouldn't have said that,' or 'I feel so fat.'

Yes, it takes a little effort at first to concentrate on your neutral or nonsense thought. But you can immediately lessen the pain this way by continually interrupting the negative thought. If you break up or eliminate this thought, you interrupt a negative feedback loop to the emotional areas that are running in high gear, taking away some of the fuel for the negative feelings.

When you feel yourself sliding into some negative thinking, immediately start saying your chosen exercise repetitively, over and over to yourself. Continually substitute it for the negative thought. You'll soon get the hang of it.

Brainswitching seems almost too simple. But the exercises do work! Yes, it takes a bit of concentration. But it gets easier as you do it. When you find yourself stuck in negative thought, just grab onto to your chosen neutral or nonsense song and that will begin to situate you in the neutral thought patterns instead of the negative one. The pain will lessen. Then, as soon as the edge is off the pain, get into some physical activity or chores and ease into your regular schedule. It can be done. Green frog! Green frog!


1 A. B. Curtiss is a board-certified cognitive behavioral therapist and author of Brainswitch out of Depression.
 

ladylore

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Stress is hard on the body and can quickly deplete our metabolic energy leading to feelings of helplessness and despair.
And leaves the body craving for sugar. And lots of it. :)

This is because the brain works by learned association (think 'black' and the thought 'white' will fire up; think 'salt' and the thought 'pepper' sparks up.) Learned associations determine your feelings and other responses, like your mouth watering when you think of lemons. Your mouth wouldn't water at the thought 'lemon' unless you had some prior experience (association) with its juicy, tart flavor.
I like the way this was put. I have learned that technique but now I know why. Thanks :)

Ladylore
 
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by extension would one be able to then ignore any negative thoughts or feelings by applying this technique? in theory one would think so, but i think in practice when there are things like loss and trauma that haven't been processed yet, i can't imagine it working to push all of that aside. it has to come out in one form or another, doesn't it?
 

adaptive1

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I don't understand this article or maybe my brain doesn't work properly. How is it possible to think of one thing at a time. I try to do this and I can't. My brain is always split between two thoughts, one is what I'm obsessing about and two what I am trying to focus on. Also, isn't this a bad idea trying to neutralize a bad thought with a good one? That's how I ended up with some of my obsessions.
 

MHealthJo

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Those are good points, Adaptive1. I was thinking similar things as I was reading this.

I wonder if more of a mindful/"accepting thoughts as just thoughts" approach is better for a lot of people? Or deconstructing and disproving as much as possible; but that takes time; and in the meantime (and even afterward) negative thoughts do still come up.
 

David Baxter

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The primary point of this article to me is one that I have made regarding OCD previously, i.e., the more attention you give to negative self-statements (scripts), the more you strengthen those neural pathways in the brain that are involved in those negative scripts.

This is one of the benefits of various versions of CBT - replacing the negative thoughts with more positive (or neutral) ones, thereby helping to strengthen positive scripts instead of negative ones.
 

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