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How changing our thoughts can transform us

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Astonishingly we have around 4,000 thoughts every waking hour. It seems a lot but anyone who’s ever had a “washing machine mind”, especially if it’s on fast spin, will believe this.

That figure was worked out from the findings at the University of Southern California’s Laboratory Of NeuroImaging. Here researchers concluded the average adult has an astounding 70,000 thoughts a day.

It’s one reason often stated by excessive drinkers or substance abusers for getting drunk or stoned: to slow down or numb out the thoughts. Or to block them out completely if blackout is reached.

As people in recovery from alcoholism are known to say: “It’s not a drinking problem; it’s a thinking problem.” It also why some say the AA of Alcoholics Anonymous could also stand for Altered Attitudes.

Negative thinking and focusing on those negatives will only make them bigger. This is because anything we focus on magnifies – whether positive or negative.

That is such as if we are always thinking about what we’re lacking in life. Or replaying over and over again in our mind something that causes us to have resentment, remorse, regret, guilt or shame.

This sort of thinking can be a major factor in a mental health problem or in driving someone to substance abuse and addiction.

So the more somebody focuses on their anxiety the more anxiety they will feel. Someone always thinking about how depressed they are will only increase their feelings of depression.

In their mind the black dog of depression gets even darker, bigger and barks at them even louder. If someone is only staring at a black cloud in an otherwise blue sky the sky may as well be all black to them.

As philosopher William James (1842-1910) put it: “You’re not what you think you are, but what you think, you are!”

Thought, speech, action

Our thoughts create feelings. Negative thoughts cause uncomfortable or perhaps terrible feelings.

Then these bad feelings create more negative thoughts. We get trapped in a vicious circle.

Lots of people live their lives consumed with resentment, fear, shame, guilt and self-pity. Then they wonder why they never feel happy and why nothing ever seems to work out well.

What we think, say and do shapes the world around us – including our inner self.

“Three things: thought, speech, action,” says Tikvah Lake Recovery’s Director Dr David Nesenoff, a counselor for more than 30 years. “Most people focus on the action. How do we change the behavior?

“The fact is every little detail starts from the thought. So we have to change the thought and the thinking pattern, the way we think about things or recognize where this initial thought is coming from. Also look into speech patterns as well, but thought is the most important.”

How we disturb ourselves

Thoughts are usually a mixture of negative, positive and inquisitive – depending on what sort of “blueprint” and patterns were passed down the generations. Also it depends on what environment and situation we find ourselves in.

It is possible to change the way we have been taught to think, and to an extent also taught ourselves to think. But it takes lots of self-awareness – and that takes practice and hard work.

“If you change your thinking then you are more likely to profoundly change your feelings and your behaviors,” explained psychologist Albert Ellis (1913-2007), who created the first type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the 1950s.

“It’s our belief system that largely makes us feel and behave the way we do, especially in a disturbed manner. We disturb ourselves.”

He believed that we frequently create our own frustration, stress, disappointment and distress. That is because we think, feel and act on “must” demands.

“The three main musts are: ‘I must do well or I’m no good’; ‘you must treat me well or you’re worthless’; and ‘the world must give me exactly what I want precisely when I went it or it’s a horrible awful place.’ 

“But when you think inflexibly you disturb yourself. Our mind very significantly influences matter.

“Because it’s so ingrained it requires work and practice to give it up. For example you’ll never say: ‘What am I going to do about it?’ if something awful happened and you’re horrified because instead you’ll just freeze and make yourself worse.”

Placebo or nocebo effect

Most people have heard of the “placebo effect”. It’s a beneficial result produced by a placebo drug or treatment that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself – so it must be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment.

The word “placebo” is from Latin meaning “I shall be acceptable or pleasing”. So we have the ability to think and believe ourselves to an acceptable and pleasing state of being.

But there is also the opposite of the placebo effect: the “nocebo effect.” The word “nocebo” is from Latin again and it means “I shall cause harm”.

It’s connected to the word “noxious” meaning “physically harmful or destructive to living beings; constituting a harmful influence on mind or behavior”. So we have the ability to think and believe ourselves to a harmful state of being.

Ask, believe, receive

This is something that our ancestors were clearly aware of – as they frequently wrote about it.

For instance William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet in the early 1600s: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita that was written at some point from the 5th to the 2nd Century BC it said: “You are what you believe in. You become that which you believe you can become.”

Then in the Bible’s Book Of Proverbs it says: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he…”

Much more recently self-help author and motivational speaker Dr Wayne W. Dyer (1940-2015) put it this way: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

He also wrote many bestselling books on this including Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life; A New Way Of Thinking, A New Way of Being; and Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits.

It can help to know that a great many of our thoughts are in fact a series of choices for us to consider. So although we have all these thousands of thoughts every waking hour we do have a choice over which ones we pay attention to the most.

We also can learn how to keep it in the now. This is beneficial as so many of our negative thoughts are to do with past resentments and regrets or future worries.

The two fighting wolves story

There is a story most often said to be from the Cherokee people that brilliantly illustrates our choice in what we think and what major influence that will have on us.

In it an old man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me between two wolves,” said the old man. “One wolf is full of anger, envy, self-pity, greed, arrogance, inferiority, superiority, resentment, remorse, regrets, guilt and shame. The other is made up of peace, hope, kindness, empathy, serenity, humility, compassion, and love.

“And this same fight is going on inside you – and inside everyone else as well.”

His grandson thought about this for a moment.

Then he asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins this fight?”

The old man replied: “It’s always the one you feed the most.”

We have great experience of helping people with every type of mental health illness and addiction. Contact our expert team today to find out how we can help you or someone you care about.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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