Thinking Makes it So

Did you ever stop to realize that our thoughts create our reality? That they even create and change our physiology, our internal chemistry?

Thoughts Are That Powerful

After you read this article, you will be a changed person. That’s my promise to you. Awareness is the first step to change. Since after you’ve read this article, you will know how thoughts trigger reactions in us, then forever more, you will have the personal responsibility to ensure that your thoughts, your thinking, will support you. You will be ‘response able’ as Stephen Covey said.

The quality of our thoughts impacts our lives. Everything from our stress levels and general health, to the progress we make in our professional lives and relationships.

Some Interesting Facts About Thoughts

A number of years ago National Science Foundation researchers estimated that an average person thinks approximately 12,000 thoughts per day. A deep or creative thinker up to 50,000 per day. Other estimates run as high as 60,000/day. Break it down – that means 8 to 42 thoughts per minute. PHEW! I’m tired already.
And how much of that thinking is supporting us? Creating health? Boosting our immune system? It’s a huge opportunity to make ourselves ….miserable…. and it appears that’s what we do, really well.

Estimates say between 70 – 80 % of our thoughts have a negativity bias. Researchers have found out that our brains are hard wired to register and remember negative events more quickly and deeply than positive ones. This was good when we had to be alert for lions lurking around the corner and to avoid possible dangerous situations but not so handy in today’s world. Today, the snake turns around to bite its own tail.

The Physiology of Thoughts

What happens when a not so supportive thought occurs to us. Let’s take a thought such as: “she doesn’t like me anymore” or “I’m going to lose my job.” Short little sentences but what an impact they can have, if we let them. Or how about our internal critic, that brain ‘voice’ that tells us how incompetent we are, how unworthy we are…You’re getting the picture, right?

The moment we utter fearful sentences such as this either in our head or out loud, the reaction gets transferred via electrical impulses which race along our neural pathways. At the same time, elsewhere in the brain, signals are being sent to the areas where hormones are made. Almost instantly, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are being pumped into the bloodstream. Betwixt and between about 1400 biochemical signals and processes are taking place. Everything is happening so fast. Electrical signals in the neural pathways cause our muscles to contract, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, just to name a few.

As a fearful thought loops around and around in our brain the effects manifest themselves everywhere. If it’s an especially fearful thought, we lose our ability to think clearly for 4- 6 hours. Our immune system is compromised for up to 6 hours.

In a Word?… Mindfulness

So how can we influence this chain of events? How can we put the brakes on thoughts that are exerting a
non-supportive response in ourselves?
As I mentioned at the start of this article, the first step is awareness. And that is what has been created here in each and every one of you. We need to truly practice mindfulness, ‘hear’ our thoughts and make a decision as to whether this pattern of thinking is supporting us or not. If it’s not, then the responsibility is upon you, and only you, to decide how to deal with it. We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we can choose, we must choose, how we will react.

Once you are mindful you are able to ask supportive questions. Asking yourself ‘why’ questions keeps us focused on the negativity, often in a victim role. Ask yourself a ‘how’ question and you’ll see new opportunities unfold. It’s all there for the asking. You just need to be aware. To be ‘response able’ and choose for possibilities. Will you do this?

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet

Holiday Needs in Your Time of Need

For many of us, the holidays, which are fast approaching, are a stressful time. Holiday stress manifests itself in a multitude of symptoms due to a variety of causes.
Here is a tip that can help you celebrate the coming days in full holiday cheer: behind any one of your energy draining stressors, lies one or more needs that aren’t being met. If you can identify the need or needs not being met, you can then do something about it. If you choose to.

Needs over time

The list of your needs is long and extends from physical needs (enough food, water, air to breathe, exercise etc.) to emotional, mental and spiritual needs. A need for calm, a need to be seen or heard, a need for connection, respect, humor, compassion, or …

The needs which are important to us, developed over time. Your experiences, beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, fears, values all contributed to how you react when a need isn’t being met. Not all family get-togethers are occasions of joy, peace and harmony. Holiday music can be very misleading.

Awareness is key

It’s an interesting concept – that just identifying an unmet need can help you turn around the energy depletion that occurs in its absence. It takes the significance out of the situation to know what is behind your reaction. Of course, every personal development change in life starts with awareness, so why should this be any different? Well, it’s not.

Develop an awareness first, to which needs are important to you. To help you do this, here is a Needs List which you can find at this link.

Your homework should you choose to accept it

Choose the 10 top needs for yourself from this list (if they’re plentiful in your life, don’t choose food, water, air etc.). Then from this top ten, whittle it down to a top five. Then from this top five, choose the one need that is MOST important to you. You now have a workable list.

Take the items on the top ten list and make a copy of it. Carry it with you. Over the coming weeks, whenever you’re triggered by an energy draining emotion, take this list out. As soon as you’re aware of the energy draining emotion, ask yourself what need isn’t being met. Look first to the most important need in your life. Is this the reason for your im/ex-plosion? If not, look further down on your list. In all likelihood, the why behind your reaction will be on this list, because it’s absent in your life.

What you need now

A final piece of advice. In order to stimulate awareness in how you’re feeling, it may help you to ask ‘what do I need now?’. Call upon your inner wisdom in the situation. Once you know what you need – ask for it. Don’t demand it and don’t expect the other person to know why you feel the way you do. Ask for the need to be met in a non-judgmental, non-accusing manner. What I need right now is ——-.

Start practicing now. You will have a wonderful resource at your fingertips to help you find enjoyment amid all the hustle and bustle. Happy Holidays!

Resiliency in Communication

The Problem

  • Have you ever been guilty of reading someone’s mind, assuming you know what the other person means?
  • Have you created fiction for yourself from something you heard someone say?
  • Have you jumped in, offering your two cents worth, not knowing the whole story and ending up with the proverbial foot in your mouth?
  • Have you ever been offended and not taken the time to ask for clarification?

Oh what conflicts are caused by ineffective communication. And conflicts of course lead to stress, usually for both sides. They often lead to long term grudges as well, which are hugely toxic to us physically, mentally and emotionally.

There are many aspects to communication and we assume we do them all equally well. What we don’t know is just how ineffective we can be in both communicating what we really want and hearing what the other person needs.

The Brain’s Perspective

We think we know how to communicate. After all, most of us are pretty literate. We know how to speak, write and read. The first question I ask is, do we really know how to listen?

I fear not. The reasons are many and they are somewhat complicated. They have to do with how our brains function. We carry our own baggage into conversations. Our past experiences, needs, values, language, self-image, beliefs, prejudices, attitudes, wants, fears, mind-sets all influence what we hear and how we interpret what we hear. It’s a long list.

Our brain filters the information it receives based on all of these factors. We think we know what the other person says and means but we can never, ever truly stand in their shoes. Your reality won’t be, can’t be, their reality.

Have you also ever noticed how as someone is speaking, we’re already formulating our responses in our brain? There is a constant barrage of thoughts or judgments. We can’t wait for the other person to stop talking, so we can make our point.

If this is so, how can we be listening coherently? From our hearts?

Communicating Effectively

Really effective communication is like a couple dancing in total harmony with each other. It can be learned. But it takes a lot of practice. And we’ll make a lot of mistakes, before we master it.

In my work of teaching others how to develop more emotional agility and hence resiliency in stressful situations, I share how one can become coherent in the moment using their breathing. In past articles I’ve elaborated on this theme. Even in the midst of a conflict, slow and deep breathing opens up a gap between a stimulus (what someone said or did) a.k.a. the stressor, and our response.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction we’re so used to, it allows us to respond with supportive choices in the moment. There is a physiological reason for this: a brain that isn’t engaged in emotions like anger or fear is a brain that can think logically and creatively. That brain helps us find more helpful ways to look for the win-win in situations.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Best of all would be preventing conflicts from occurring. Marshall Rosenberg, a U.S. psychologist, developed a method he calls Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication.

Those who practice this way of communicating learn to resolve differences peacefully. It teaches us how to connect compassionately with ourselves and with others. It’s useful in both personal and business conflicts.

One Last Helpful Hint

If you’re not clear what someone meant, don’t assume, don’t guess, don’t mind-read. Show your vulnerability and ask for clarity. You can save yourself a lot of heartache and a lot of stress.

Know Thyself!

One of the Greatest Gifts

Getting to know yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Paying attention to your thoughts, your feelings, to the bodily sensations created by these same thoughts and feelings to increase your awareness. If you know what direction your thoughts are leading you, if you’re aware of the tension these thoughts may be imposing upon you, then you can start creating other thoughts and making choices that support you.

Napolean Hill’s quote: “most people are the servants and not the masters of their emotions”, tells us that what we lack is self-awareness. Another quote from him illustrates this also: “Life either rides or is ridden. It never stands still. What choices you make determine whether one becomes the horse or the rider.” A powerful metaphor. In order to make choices that ensure you are ‘life’s rider’, you must take the time for self-reflection. And what better way than by immersing yourself in solitude, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day?

Planning for Solitude

In these days of being constantly electronically connected to the world, with noise pollution a common factor, finding time to connect to ourselves isn’t something we can take for granted. We need to plan for it.

A while back, I was having lunch with a friend and she commented on how addicted she was to checking her emails and especially her telephone for text messages. Both of her daughters are in their 20’s yet still she needed to feel connected, at all times. But what she had come to realize, is that she had very little time without distractions. She promised herself then and there that she would take one day of the week to commit to being ‘offline’. Laptop out, mobile out. Contemplatively enjoying the time alone, with just herself for company.

Disconnected for one day might be a big stretch for many of you. It would be for me. So plan carefully when and what you can give back to yourself. It’s the best gift you can possibly give to the person who is most important in your life – you!

Just a Few Benefits

Remember that as you ‘indulge’ yourself in this practice, you are re-wiring your neural hard wiring. As you increase your awareness in these moments or hours or during a day, you will notice that you’re more alert even during the busyness of your day. You will be able to bring yourself back into a harmonious state much more quickly when confronted with one of life’s many challenges.

And remember in these precious moments, to go to your heart, breathe deeply and slowly in and out and activate a ‘feel good’ feeling for yourself. You are worth it. More than you might even know.

“Know thyself” Socrates

What’s your chemical soup mix?

Photo Els ‘t Hooft: used with permission

One of my favorite parts in giving a workshop, training or a presentation, is when I get to the ‘chemical soup mix’ part. I truly believe that when one understands what is going on physiologically, as a result of a stress reaction, then we’re less inclined to let our response hijack us.

Did you know that when we have a stress reaction – say you run out of hot water while your hair is covered in shampoo; or you spill hot coffee on your newly laundered pants on your way to an important meeting; or your teenager is two hours past their curfew; or you’re on a walk in a nature reserve and come across this very large bear – that in the instant in which we ‘lose’ it, about 1400 biological, biochemical processes take place?

A Choreographed Symphony

YES, you’re reading this right – about 1400! Almost instantaneously. Without us having to ‘do’ anything. We are so amazing. Our autonomic nervous system kicks in and the brain starts choreographing a whole new symphony of reactions. Which is absolutely great. This is exactly what we need when the bear confronts us during our walk in that nature reserve. But listen up – it’s not such a supportive reaction when it’s happening for non-life threatening reasons, like worrying about things we can’t control. Or creating fiction for the future. Or beating ourselves up about things that happened in the past. Or letting someone push our buttons.

When we have a stress reaction that’s not for a physiological reason – in other words there isn’t a bear we’re being confronted with, or a car isn’t about to run us down – then we need to be able to choose our response. It’s called emotional agility. Most of our emotions don’t just ‘happen’ to us, though it often feels they are. We perceive something as being threatening and just by thinking that it is, our brain kicks into stress mode, conducting its business as if we were truly under a threat.

Why is this Important?

A body experiencing a chronic chemical stress soup mix is going to wear out much faster than one which has a supportive chemical soup mix with lots of feel-good hormones. Our creative, logical thinking skills aren’t maximized, our memory is affected (where are my car keys!), our immune system is affected. These are just a few of the consequences of not learning how to self-regulate our emotions.

Learn what signals your body is giving you, indicating that you’re having a stress response. Become aware; stop being on automatic pilot. Take time to listen to what your body is telling you.

Remember to Breathe!

When you feel that there are circumstances which could become stressful, remember to breathe. Slowly. Just 2 – 3 minutes of breathing slowly, will allow your brain to switch off the toxic chemical soup mix and turn on a mixture that’s much more supportive.

Feeling Safe, Feeling Valued, Builds Trust

Safety, Appreciation and Trust. Why are these qualities needed to ensure that employees flourish? What is it about these basic human needs, which makes it so important for organizations to recognize how toxic the environment is when they aren’t in place?

Trust in the Workplace

Much has been said regarding the importance of trust in the workplace, in building relationships that thrive. Yet trust remains elusive in most organizations. As a leader, if your people don’t trust you or each other, then you must know you aren’t getting quality performance from them. A lack of trust creates a culture of fear and fear will only motivate for mediocrity.

Neuroscience knows that when we don’t feel safe, the pre-frontal cortex goes into shut down mode. It’s where we do our creative, logical thinking. Shutting down as a response to fear, narrowing our focus, is part of our human survival mechanism.

In the documentary ‘Everybody Matters‘, for those of you who aren’t interested in the human side of business, Simon Sinek says in an interview, that there are enough business reasons to adopt measures for caring: “People who like coming to work are more productive. People who feel safe amongst their own, who can trust the people they work with, are more likely to offer bigger ideas, take better risks, be more innovative and be more productive.” What isn’t to like about this?

Creating a Higher Trust Culture

What is one simple step you, as a (personal) leader, can take towards creating a higher trust culture within your organization? Well, organizations are comprised of organisms (in this case, people). A thriving business is built on thriving relationships, both internally and externally. The answer to my question is simple as well: value your colleagues by showing you care. Give recognition for work well done or for a small gesture of collegiality! There is no large investment of time, energy or other resources needed. Honest, sincere, and clearly stated appreciation will earn you huge credits in the trust department.

The image here gives a good indication as to why you might want to address your culture of (dis)trust sooner, rather than later.

Source: Everybody Matters

Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at the UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business, has developed a theory called the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Her research shows that negative emotions narrow our focus. Positive emotions such as gratitude broaden our attention; they broaden our awareness and they help us to be more creative and more cognitively flexible. As an extra benefit, one of the variables for resilience is mental agility. By adding positive emotions to your daily interactions, you create greater resilience in yourself and in others.

Simon Sinek and Bob Chapman Have the Last Word

If you still think there isn’t a reason to create attitudes of gratitude for happier, more trusting and highly engaged workplaces, please go back to the quote above by Simon Sinek.

To paraphrase a statement by Bob Chapman in the documentary ‘Everybody Matters’: What a difference it would make if businesses would focus more on human value, than on shareholder value.

More Thoughts about Thoughts

The Quality of our Thoughts

The influence and power of the quality of our thoughts is such an important topic, that I decided to share some thoughts more about thoughts with you. I published a previous post on this topic here.

Every day we are subjected to a huge dose of negativity and fear-based news. If it’s not the politicians with whom we’re upset, then it’s the crisis in the middle-east that has us reacting in anger and fear. The list of possibilities is endless. And as if this isn’t enough, we also endlessly play the blame and shame game. We either beat ourselves up over something that has or hasn’t happened or we’re blaming someone else for our problems.

Imagined Danger

Our thoughts create our reality and they also affect our physiology. So many wise people have shared this lesson with us. Robert Sapolsky who has researched stress in humans, says that we are constantly bombarding our bodies with a stress reaction, not from any imminent danger but from the imagined danger our minds have created.

Food for Thought

“It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” Dale Carnegie 1888-1955, Author and Speaker

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you, as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you, as by the way your mind looks at what happens.” Khalil Gibran 1883-1931, Artist, Poet, and Writer

“And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this! And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back put it on your heart and say : “No. This is important” Iain Thomas

“[ …]I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I could go on and on sharing quotes from eminent writers, researchers and philosophers but I think you get my point.

Observation = Mindfulness

Start observing your thoughts. This is what mindfulness is all about. We think it’s something vague but actually it’s the most important thing you can do for yourself. Ask yourself: are my thoughts serving me or hindering me? What you focus on really does create your reality.

If they’re hindering you, then there is a good chance that not only are you not very happy but they’re also creating a toxic chemical soup mix in your body. This is at the root of so much physical and mental illness. And it’s something we do have control over. No-one can ‘force’ us to have a certain thought. But they can certainly influence you, if you let them.

By creating an awareness of our thoughts and by focusing on the positive aspects of our lives, we can rewire our brain to see and experience greater positivity.

One Step Towards Self-reflection

Do the gratitude exercise as one step towards self-reflection and to creating a brain that is hardwired for positivity. You’ll be amazed at what an affect this will have for your emotional and physical state. Every day focus on 3 things that went well. Feel the gratefulness in your heart. Life is good.

Thoughts about Thoughts

“As he thinks, so he is; as he continues to think, so he remains.” ― James Allen As a Man Thinketh

Did you know that researchers have estimated we have between 8 and 42 thoughts per minute – upwards of 60,000 thoughts per day?

Did you know that of these thoughts circa 60 – 70 % are repetitive and of these repetitive thoughts, circa 70 – 80 % can have a negativity bias? That is – they are rooted in fear, anger or frustration. This negativity bias is stronger in some than in others. It is a primitive skill that was much needed 20,000 years ago to keep us alive, but not so much now.

A Useful Question to Ask Yourself

I have had the great pleasure to hear Byron Katie speak twice at full day workshops. For those of you who don’t know her, she is an American, who upon reaching the depths of depression after a ten-year spiral, realized that by believing her stressful thoughts, she suffered. When she questioned them, questioned their veracity as in, ‘is it true’ or perhaps more emphatically – ‘Is it ABSOLUTELY true’ – then her suffering stopped. She came to understand that hanging on to and believing in her thoughts was keeping her in a highly negative and energy draining state.

‘The Work’

For more than 25 years she has been teaching ‘The Work’. A series of simple questions that can and will alter your life, if you do the work that is. Here are some excerpts from what she shared that day, that I want to share with you. In some cases I might have missed a word or two but the essence of her meaning is intact.

“Why do we have worrying thoughts? Because we do!”

“The thought I’m thinking now is the only proof I’ve got. It’s only my proof when I believe it.”

“I can’t detach from what I’m thinking as long as I believe what I am thinking.”

“Identify your thoughts and question those thoughts.”

“Have you ever said something in the moment you believe is true, but maybe later didn’t believe it? Others do this too.”

“Thoughts are recycled – we all experience all of them – we pass them on as long as we believe them. They are not unique to you.” (She had just asked the audience if the thought believed by the person she was speaking with on stage, was one that we all had experienced – several hundred hands went up in the room)

“Don’t run the other person’s life from out of your own head.”

“I can’t know what another is feeling or thinking – it’s all projection.”

“Who would you be without that thought?” (my answer = FREE!)

“How do I react when I believe the thought ‘my children don’t listen to me’ ? With guilt, anger, punishment?”

“Welcome every opportunity for anger, frustration, etc. because it tells you there is still work to be done.”

“Angry human beings are frightened human beings but rather than offer them compassion we give them more of the same.”

“No-one can make me angry – what I’m believing about them is making me angry.”

“Don’t think for the other person – are you psychic?”

I hope these ‘tidbits’ have given you food for thought. There are many more I noted during the 6 hours she spoke. Remember to check in with yourself. Not all of your thoughts are always true. Question your thoughts and ask if they are REALLY true or are they based on fear or projection (assumptions).

Neural Plasticity

As a teenager and young adult, I remember saying to myself (and others) “why is it so easy to be negative while I have to work at being positive?” Knowing what I do now, I understand why I had that thought and that belief. We are hardwired with a negativity bias – something that served our primitive ancestors but often standing in the way to our growth and development.

Chronic negativity is energy draining. It drains our resources and our resourcefulness. Neural scientists have discovered in these two decades that the brain is ‘plastic’. It is very adaptable. We can and do create new neural pathways until the day we die. Optimism can be learned and developed. I challenge you to do this.

To find out more about Byron Katie visit her website here. You can download a pdf file of the Four Questions here 

photo Mirjam Willaert

Please share your comments and questions in the comments section below.