Friday, January 16, 2009

Sun Pillar at Sunset, Jan.14, 2009
Eastshore - Lake Almanor, CA
Original Photo by Jan Davies, c. 2009

How to THINK your way to less STRESS

by Janis Davies, Certified Whole Health Educator
As published January 7, 2009 in:
Health, Mind & Body, special supplement to the newspapers of Feather Publishing Co.: Feather River Bulletin, Chester Progressive, Indian Valley Record, Portola Reporter

13,000. The average number of thoughts we are plagued with each and every day. Think about it… oops! There goes another thought... and another… and another…

Doesn’t it seem like each and every one of those thoughts has substance, reality, validity? We “thought” it, so it must be true, right? We assume every thought is an expression of fact. Even our bodies believe every thought we think.

Take this lemon I am getting ready to cut up. I’ve placed it on the cutting board, removed my sharpest knife, and now I am slicing it, bright yellow and juicy, with spray coming easily off the thick waxy peel. I can smell the tart citrus-y odors, immediately thinking of lemonade, and lemon meringue pie. I take half a lemon in my hands, squeeze gently, and the juices flow into my mouth.

What’s happening in your body right now? Is your mouth filled with saliva anticipating the sour lemon juices? I just tricked your brain into recalling a caseload of memories, and your body responded as if it were real.

What if I ask you to recall the last argument you had? The last time you were ashamed or humiliated? The last time you were mad as a hornet? Give these thoughts the time of day and, voila! Your body is back at that precise moment in time, reliving not just the thoughts and emotions, but also the stress hormones and health compromising effects that come along with it.

Give it more attention and, before you know it a whole lifetime of similar events come swarming at you, filling you with more anger, fear, or sadness; or, conversely, joy and appreciation.

Instant thinking
We can “think” ourselves into most any emotion, but did you know that often the reverse is true? An emotion can be instantly triggered by an event or sensory input (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound), leading the brain to reply with “instant” explanations. The assumption that gets us into trouble is believing that what we think is reality.

However, the brain is trafficking in habitual responses. Like a search on Google, our brain reacts to input by spewing out the most likely combinations of information and memories from the “files” until a plausible reason is reached. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck, right? Not always.

Our brains evolved to learn. And learning requires instant memorization of complex environmental stimuli, so that the next similar event can be dealt with as quickly as possible. It is the difference between life and death, in other words, survival. What the brain learns and believes is instantly communicated to every cell in the body, via hormones (neuro-peptides), electrical impulses, and molecular vibration.

Our bodies are listening
This brings us to the relationship between thinking and chronic stress. When we communicate “within,” our cells, organs and tissues are listening. If I am angry, my cells are soaking in anger. If I am happy my cells are soaking in happiness. Directing these feelings at others does not leave me out of the equation. Road rage, feelings of overwhelm and frustration, directed at drivers who do not follow our rules of the road ultimately hurts us.

Transient feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, or shame are not dangerous, and do not cause harm. What causes damage is the habitual indulgence of dwelling in the past hurts and regrets, or future worries and fears, and the endless abuse we silently spew at ourselves, most often at the subconscious level where we are unaware.

If our Inner Voice was a person sitting next to us on a bench, how long would we put up with their insults? Their abuse? The crazy, disconnected verbiage that is our constant companion heard inside our heads? We’d run quickly in the opposite direction!

“Thinking,” is the major source of chronic stress in our modern world, where prior generations have suffered (presumably) under more physical, or primitive, forms of stress, such as untreatable illness and injuries, hunger, providing shelter, and protecting oneself, family and community from predation, competition or invasion.

Thanks to the amazing learning abilities of the brain, thought connections perform like well-traveled roads. The more a road is traveled, the deeper the ruts. At some point the ruts are so deep, a traveler cannot change the path, even when they try to. Our minds work similarly. The more we think a thought, the more instantaneous and transparent the thought/action becomes.

This is fantastic if we are learning to drive a car, or to speak a new language. The less we have to think about our actions, the quicker we can respond with automated action. No longer wasting energy by concentrating on clutch, brake, accelerator, turn signal, traffic, we are able to eat, drink, talk on the phone, apply makeup, balance the checkbook, text your kids and check the stock market, while cruising 62 mph down the highway!

Take a breath!
Stop! Take a deep breath… Step back slowly from the situations of your crazy life. Think (briefly) about how habitually overwhelming yourself with demands and tasks is shortening your life. The resultant chronic stress is hardening your arteries, raising your blood pressure, elevating blood sugar, and picking away at the very fabric of your DNA. Precious DNA, the blueprint for repairs in every cell of your body.

The instinctive way we often deal with “bad thinking,” is negation. We tell ourselves, “don’t think that thought.” We try to push away from the feelings: “don’t be depressed,” “don’t be sad.” Because the focus is still on the unwanted, we tend to remain focused on what we wish to avoid.

The next level of repairing our thinking is zero balance. That’s when people try to meditate by thinking about “nothing.” Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think… Oops! Darn, there goes another thought! Don’t think, I really mean it, DON’T THINK! Before you know it the 13,000 thoughts have you in a strangle-hold. At that point most people give up and decide meditation is clearly not for them. They (think they) have failed miserably at changing their thinking and relieving stress.

We begin to see some results when we practice replacement thinking. Instead of trying to change old thoughts, habits, feelings and the resultant behaviors, we begin to come up with replacement ideas that are healthier. Sometimes these are referred to as affirmations. These are new statements of positive experience we consciously choose over the old.

The old thoughts still come bouncing in, but the more we practice, the better it gets, the more relief we enjoy. This employs re-routing the thought patterns of the brain. Just like building muscles, practicing powerful healthier statements on a regular basis strengthens the neuronal connections giving them more clout.

One of the most practiced examples of affirmation is the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Commonly attributed to theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr)

Positive emotion connection
Expanding on replacement thinking, and backed by scientific research, are the practices that might be referred to as positive emotion connection. The glue in memory is emotion. By utilizing techniques that employ heart-feeling with mind and body connections, healthier stress-free living becomes more quickly accessible. There are many new, and not-so-new, versions of positive emotion practices. These include a variety of practices with exotic names like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Thought-Field Therapy (TFT), Energy Freedom Technique (EFT), Energy Psychology, the broad field of Guided Imagery, mindfulness or breath meditations, and HeartMath.

Developed by Doc Childre and Howard Martin, HeartMath is focused on teaching “heart-based living – people relying on the intelligence of their heart in concert with their minds to improve health, performance, relationships and well-being at home and in the workplace” ( The basic premise is a three-step process called Quick Coherence® Technique: “Heart focus. Heart breathing. Heart feeling.”

By tapping into our bodies innate drive for health, and linking that to the process of feeling and thinking, we can learn to manage stress more easily, building more effective coping, and restoring the ability to thrive in our lives, regardless of our external circumstances.

"All that we are is a result of what we have thought." -Buddha