Stress: we have all experienced it. Research tells us it's one of those factors that contributes to every major chronic illness. And interestingly, the stress you encounter can be real or imagined, and still negatively effect you. Many of us struggle with mental and emotional baggage that weighs us down and causes distress, sometimes without even being consciously aware of it. In today's blog, we will explore some of the most common mental pitfalls, what factors influence those maladaptive thoughts, and tools to help you detox and cleanse some of the emotional debt and toxic nostalgia you may be holding onto.
The Biology of Belief
Core Beliefs are the conclusions you have made about yourself, others, and about life in general. These beliefs are usually constructed in childhood and are based on life experiences with significant others, and are typically unconscious. Regardless of your awareness of them, core beliefs give rise to receptive thoughts, and these thoughts in turn reflect and often reinforce your core beliefs.
Early Life Experiences --> Unconscious Core Beliefs --> Thoughts --> Emotions --> Behaviour
According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, these unconscious core beliefs are potent epigenetic (meaning "above" genes) signals have a profound effect at the molecular level, a process he called the Biology of Belief. Our unconscious beliefs are deeply ingrained in our physiology, and they are deeply ingrained in our perceptions. We process and perceive our experiences through the biology of our beliefs because they are a highly reliable source of information in the body. Just imagine running into a bear: you perceive that there is danger, it elicits fear and causes a lightening-quick cascade of signals that make you turn and run. If you didn't have that information and decided to fight the bear instead, that might not work out so well for your survival! Our early experiences and core beliefs ultimately determine our stress response throughout life. In some instances it's an adaptive response aimed at survival and keeping you safe, such as the example above, but in many instances these core beliefs are maladaptive and create chronic states of distress.
Experts in this field have boiled it down to 3 Core Beliefs that create distress:
1. The Desire to be Perfect
The desire for perfection in all areas of our lives is rampant in our society, and the media preys on this by influencing us to pursue unrealistic ideals. From having the perfect job, to the perfect body, the perfect family, many of want it all and want it just-so. But behind this desire is a deeper core belief that could be keeping us stuck:
The belief that we are not inherently worthy or valuable
When we don't think of ourselves as inherently worthy or valuable we tend to:
- Believe that it's not ok to make mistakes
- Believe that it's not ok for people to see who we really are
- Fool people into seeing us a certain way
- Say "Everything will be fine WHEN...."
This mentality hinders us from having deep and meaningful relationships with others and ourselves.
2. The Desire for Approval or Acknowledgement
One of the most common and basic human desires is to feel acknowledged and that others approve of us and our decisions. And while this is incredibly normal to desire, if this is overwhelming and the sole reason behind why we do things or act a certain way, it could be because of a maladaptive and deeper belief:
The belief that we are unlovable
Here are some common thoughts and emotions that run through someone's brain who is stuck in this core belief:
- I must do the things that are my duty even if I don't really want to do them
- I deserve love and recognition when I do nice things for others
- I feel good when others need me
- Everything that goes wrong is my fault
- I feel guilty for being myself or a certain way
This mentality often leads to "musterbating" (I "must" do this/that) and "shoulding" (I "should" be a better this/that), which places the criteria for receiving and feeling love externally, rather than being generated from the core of our being.
3. The Desire to be in Control
Our sense of control in our world, whether real or imagined, has a profound effect on our feelings of safety and our survival. While this can obviously be a good thing, if it consumes us and our every day lives it could be maladaptive because at our core is:
The belief that we are responsible for everything and everyone around us
Some maladaptive thoughts that accompany this core belief are:
- I am safe when I am in control
- I don't trust others' ability to make decisions
- Life is best when organized and planned for
- Spontaneity and change are bad
- My life would be fine if it weren't for the actions of others
As you can imagine, many of these core beliefs and subsequent thoughts and behaviours can really impact our connection with ourselves, our connection with others, contribute to incredible amounts of stress, anxiety and/or depression, and really limit our incredible potential as human beings. So does this mean we are all doomed to live out our core beliefs indefinitely?
Of course not! The human brain has incredible plasticity, aka it's adaptable, and we can teach ourselves new ways of thinking and experiencing our world. We can literally re-wire the connections in our brain, which will have profound effects on our emotions, our behaviours and how we experience life in general.
Tools to Re-frame Your Brain
1. "Pause & Question"
In the middle of an upsetting or stressful situation, pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:
- What is my self-talk right now?
- How am I upsetting myself with this talk?
- Is this truly worth getting upset about? Does getting upset about this help the situation?
- How can I interpret this situation so that I can respond more from a neutral place?
Another helpful tip that can bring this process about in an easier way is to literally say to yourself out loud: "STOP!" which stands for:
Stop - Take a Breath - Observe - Proceed
It acts like an alarm bell or a cold shower to jolt you away from your current stream of thoughts and shift to a new way of thinking. It also dramatically and very rapidly can lower your sympathetic drive - your heart rate and breathing rates will decrease, your blood pressure will lower, and you will get more oxygen to your brain which will help you make better decisions and actions. Powerful stuff!
2. "Instant Replay"
Here you need to do three things:
CATCH IT - Recognize the self talk. Awareness is probably THE most important first step to changing anything, so if you can manage this, you can definitely begin to change the thoughts and outcomes.
CHALLENGE IT - Determine how valid, reasonable or helpful the self-talk is in the moment by asking yourself:
- Is this self-talk based on fact?
- What evidence shows that this self-talk is true?
- Am I thinking in a rigid or extreme way?
- Is my self-talk part of an unnecessary, "hot" reaction and can it be "cooler"?
- Is this self-talk helpful or harmful?
- How does this self-talk influence my physical state/health? My relationship with others? My behaviour?
CHANGE IT - Which leads us to the next tool....
3. Create Helpful Coping Statements
This is another powerful step because it replaces the negative or self-limiting thought with a positive or adaptive response, helping you to literally re-wire your neural connections. When you create a statement to replace the ANT, make sure that it is:
- Personal and specific
- In the present tense
- Practical or achievable
- Positive and believable
ANT: I am so nervous and anxious about presenting my work to my colleagues in the meeting today. I am so afraid that they will think my ideas are stupid, and that I really don't know what I am talking about.
Pause and Question: STOP! There goes that fortune-telling ANT again!!!
Challenge it: How am I upsetting myself right now with this self talk? How do I know they will think my ideas are stupid? Is there any evidence that my colleagues will think this way?
Change it: I really don't know that they will think my ideas are stupid or that I don't really know what I am talking about
Coping Statement: I choose to feel confident and calm as I present today
Of course this kind of change doesn't happen overnight. It may help to start with core beliefs or thoughts that don't carry as much weight or don't get you as fired up or emotionally upset. When you exterminate these small ANTs you will gain confidence and momentum, which can then help you squash the queen ANT ;)
4. Choose a Different Action/Behaviour
While I think it's super important to recognize core beliefs and understand your thought patterns, sometimes you just need to take ACTION in the direction you want to go. Moving forward, even with small steps, even when your heart and mind are terrified and talking loudly, DOES begin to re-frame your emotions, your thoughts, and subsequently influences your core beliefs. It's kind of a reverse process, but it can also be extremely helpful. Let's take another example:
You are overweight and feeling self-conscious, you don't feel attractive to others, and you think that you are never going to find someone to spend the rest of your life with. You hate exercise, sometimes you cook your own meals but for the most part you eat out, and you are just so tired of being tired all the time! You decide "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" and take action by joining the local gym where your best friend goes. So you tag along and try to learn from her, because she works out on a consistent basis and enjoys it. Soon you start realizing you actually like going to the gym, and decide that you are going to try to cut down on the junk food you are eating. You start noticing you're less cranky and tired and you actually have more energy than before. You are now curious about what the best way to eat is and start asking the trainers at the gym for some nutrition tips. You begin noticing that the muffin top you hate is shrinking, and you feel great about that! You start walking a little taller, and you think: "Holy crap, I am loving the effects of exercise and better eating!" And you start to feel hopeful that the right person IS out there waiting to meet you...
You get the picture - small actions, even though they may seem awkward or uncomfortable at first, can quickly start to change how you feel about yourself/your situation, which starts to change your thoughts about yourself and begins to form new core beliefs. Over time this can change your entire world, how you engage with yourself and how you engage with others.
Now I would love to hear from you! Is there a particular ANT you are having a hard time squashing? Have you overcome any of your ANTs and want to share it with others so that they can learn from your experience? Share in the comments section below and I would be happy to bounce ideas off you!
Want to learn more about what exactly a "detox" is and whether you should to it? Are there any benefits or is it all hype? Check out my article Detox Demystified: Good, Bad, or Just a Fad?
And if you are loving this article, stay tuned for the next one - Toxic Toiletries: Cleansing Your Bathroom Essentials With Safer Substitutes.
Here's to your mental detox!