Our brains are designed to fret, and what’s even worse, we are designed to hang on to our negative thoughts and emotions. Neurologically speaking, the chemical cocktail that takes place in our brains during times of stress facilitates the creation of new memories. Why? It’s one of our “useful” evolutionary talents, designed by Mother Nature herself to help us better protect ourselves. By allowing us to easily retrieve past negative experiences and the memory of how we solved them, we increase our chances of survival. That is why we often remember traumatic experiences with exceptional clarity, while our happy moments seem like a fleeting dream.
If you’re prone to fretting and overanalyzing, you might feel like sending Mother Nature a nasty letter right about now. Don’t! There are four easy things you can do to get your stressful thoughts under control, and harness the energy of your negative thoughts for the greater good.
This past week this survival trait became all too real for me. With baby and in-laws on the way, my husband and I decided to buy a bigger house that could fit all the humans, plus the dog and the chickens. But getting our mortgage approved was quite the hassle. Turns out that having foreign earned income from my time in China threw a wrench into everything. Overall, I’d have to say I spent 50% of my time last week fretting about money, and the other 50% of the time fretting about what all of this fretting was doing to my baby.
After a near meltdown I decided that the health of my unborn child was more important than a stupid house and that I was done worrying, but my mind was reeling. I couldn’t stop thinking about the what if’s, and every time my phone rang my blood pressure skyrocketed because I knew it would be another problem. While writing my book Don’t Smile at the Monkeys: 7 Rules Women Need to Survive and Thrive in the Corporate Jungle I learned a lot about how our mind forms impressions and memories, and decided to put some of my theories to the test to see how well they work. Here’s how I got my mental chaos back in check, even though everything was still falling apart around me.
I Drew Pictures
The parts of our brain that create anxiety are related to imagination and planning. The parts of our brain we engage when drawing are related to imagination, but also to memory. Simply taking out a pen and paper and starting to draw an image of something you’ve seen before will take up so much neural bandwidth that all of your anxious thoughts will be pushed out to the sidelines, giving your brain a break from anxiety and allowing your body to cease the production of stress-induced cortisol and adrenaline, giving you a chance to recover. This worked wonders for me, as I spent stressful evenings redesigning the perfect chicken coop. What can I say: I’m nesting!
The only mechanism other than anxiety that helps our brains store memories more efficiently than worry is exercise. Scientists believe that exercise boosts our memory because our ancestors had to remember how to get back to the cave on long foraging journeys. Exercise in and of itself is great for boosting serotonin and dopamine levels and making us happier, but if you’re on the treadmill replaying the awful events of the day you’re actually harming yourself in the long run by permanently programming those memories into your brain. The solution? Well, at for me at least it was getting on that treadmill and going to my happy places: my future beach house, my favorite radio shows and reruns of TV sitcoms where everything turns out right. Before long, I was thinking more positively, and whenever some negative thought popped into my mind, I’d simply get up and walk it off.
I Ate and Drank
Low blood sugar and dehydration both cause lack of self-control and poor decision making. While this didn’t help mitigate my frustrations, it did help me keep my cool and keep on track with the things that I was doing to alleviate my stress, rather than blowing a fuse and making the situation worse.
A big part in overcoming anxiety is replacing the negative dialogue in your brain with a positive one, but often trying to suppress a thought causes us to focus on it more vehemently. Fortunately, singing is a powerful tool that can override your internal dialogue. When you sing, your brain is gathering both melodic and verbal memories, and because it prefers the easily accessible information stored in rhythm, it quickly drowns out negative thoughts to make room for the music.
How do you stop your negative thoughts? Share your secret formula below!