If You Want to Be Optimistic This Is How You Should Talk to Yourself, According to a Psychotherapist

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Dr. Mike Dow: I take our two rescue pups, Rocco and Emmett, for a walk as I drink coffee. I’m not much of a morning person, so this quiet time is great for me to get my brain warmed up for the day ahead of me.

TG: What gives you energy?

MD: As a healer/explorer, I spend my days researching the brain health strategies that actually help people to recover. I know how desperate people are, and I know this from my own family’s experience. My brother David had a massive stroke when he was 10. One doctor told us the damage was so extensive that we should just give up and put him in a nursing home for the rest of his life. Another doctor gave him a watch with a GI Joe on it. This doctor (our family’s favorite) told him that she was giving him this watch because he was going to have to fight for his recovery. And that’s what my brother did. Today, my brother is not in a nursing home. My brother had to work hard every single day to learn how to speak a single word. He had to learn how to walk. I was just a kid at the time. My father was a physician was researched strategies. He put David on mega-doses of omega-3 fish oils when most doctors thought this was more “snake oil” at the time. My dad found a neurosurgeon who would operate when all the other neurosurgeons said, “David’s case is inoperable.”

Today, I write books for people with brain drain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, insomnia, brain fog, mommy brain, and senior moments. Many of them have been in my brother’s shoes in some way, shape, or form. Someone has told them they were “hopeless” or they have been told the only option is a lifetime of medication. While that may be true in some cases, I have become obsessed with finding the integrative, holistic, and evidence-based treatment strategies that work.

I get a huge burst of energy when I meet someone or get a message that says, “I did what you said. I feel better! It worked!” It makes me feel like I’m living my mission statement and that I’m on the right track.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

MD: I plant optimistic, positive messages into my subconscious brain by the way I talk to myself every day. Hypnosis is one of my favorite tools I use in my private practice. I know how effective it is from experience; I use it on myself daily. If I was talking to a patient who was dealing with an anxiety disorder, I may say something like: “I wonder at what point in your week you will notice how confident, calm, and comfortable you are. It may be tomorrow, or it may be in a few days…” Planting seeds like these can be a potent way to create change. Before I walk into a talk show taping, I may say to myself: “I wonder when I’ll notice at what point in the segment I’ll notice my experience and preparation paying off…and notice that I’m speaking in an effective and easy way.”

We are so hard on ourselves, aren’t we? And negative thoughts can snowball into behaviors so quickly, don’t they? Instead of focusing on stopping the worry, I find focusing on the “what’s right” to be far more effective. The human brain is wired with a bias towards negativity to keep us alive. Priority is given to images, thoughts, and experiences that are distressing: the brain’s way of making sure we learn that stoves can burn us and that we should run from lions. The modern world may not have too many lions running around Manhattan, but it does have more and more unpredictable danger like 24/7 coverage of random acts of violence and terrorism. I also have a family history of anxiety disorders and an unpredictable literary career that can be incredibly stressful. Positive self-talk and self-hypnosis help me to maintain balance. When I’m flying in on a red eye flight to do the Today show at 5 am, this calming, positive message comes in really handy.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.

MD: The Alchemist. I am a seeker, healer, explorer, and dreamer. These traits – and the brain chemistry that comes with it – has allowed me to create a life I love. But with every personality type comes blessings and curses (e.g., sensation avoiders are more likely to diagnosed with anxiety but less likely to be diagnosed with addiction; neuroticism increases your risk of staying slim but also eating disorders). My brain focuses on what’s next. This has helped me to be successful. When the show I was co-hosting on TLC got canceled, I soon had a contract with another cable network. But my curse is that sometimes I fail to appreciate what I already have. The Alchemist reminds me of two great lessons. First, sometimes the greatest gifts are right here at home. Second, when “you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true.” This helps me to relax a little from time to time.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you? 

MD: It is on the nightstand, but I for “sleep good” – not “sleep evil.” I have the night setting on to filter out blue light after sunset so as not to disrupt my circadian rhythms as much. I’m obsessed with the Sleep Machine app which I’ve found to be the best white noise maker app. I’ve found using the same white noise machine at home and in hotel rooms is really helpful. The $50 Marpac Dohm I recommend in my book in the cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) chapter is also great. However, I sleep in hotels and like to pair the same sound to sleep in my brain whether I’m in my bedroom at at the Hyatt. Once my phone is face down, the Sleep Machine goes on, and the ringer goes off, it’s wind-down time. I do this as I’m winding down – not right when I hit the pillow. I sleep 8 hours just about every night. A New York-based publicist once told me I should try to turn my ringer on so she could text me if there was a last-minute deadline for an article (I’m in LA). My response: no way! New York will just have to wait until 11 am EST if they need me. Informing people about brain health is important, but so is our sleep. My boyfriend is an ER doctor who works night shifts, so we both need our sleep. Eye masks (I love the $10 dual-strap version Alaska Bear) and earplugs are musts for me. Because his circadian rhythms can be out of whack, this prevents me from waking up if he stirs and starts buying shoes on Amazon at 4 am. Our bedroom is pitch black and we sleep at nice cold 68 degrees which makes sleep easier.

TG: How do you deal with email?  

MD: To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with it. I do it in bursts. Staying connected to it all day long burns me out. The weekends are amazing. I love Saturdays and Sundays when I don’t get them piling in and can catch up.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it? 

MD: Take our pups for another walk. It’s the best way to clear my head. I have a little sign above my desk that says: Time spent with a dog is never wasted. Words of wisdom.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why? 

MD: Two weeks ago. I hadn’t been sick all winter. Of course, I got sick the week of book launch for my latest book: Heal Your Drained Brain. You can’t call in sick to a taping of The Dr. Oz Show that’s based on your book. It was raining slash snowing in New York. Every morning, I would wake up in my hotel room. I’d use a little gratitude. I am so lucky to be here. I’d pop a few Advil, a few Halls, and do what I had to do. I had never been so happy to get home to sunny LA.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

MD: My first book Diet Rehab was a failure – at least in the business sense of the word. In retrospect, I have come to see it in a different way. At the time, I was co-hosting TLC Freaky Eaters. Our third season was scheduled to premiere at the same time of my first book’s launch. I was so proud of this book. Writing self-help books had been something I had always dreamed of doing. It seemed all my dreams were about to come true in a very big way. There were so many publishers who wanted the book that the contract negotiations went into a 3-day bidding war. When it came time to write the book, I worked hard. I was so proud of it. TLC had planned to cross-promote the launch of the book. Here I was. This naïve, first-time author. It felt like it all happened so quickly.

Then, it all came down crumbling down like a house of cards. I remember exactly where I was when I got the call. TLC had decided to pull the plug on our third season. Without the third season of the show, all of the things I had promised to the publisher weren’t going to happen. I felt sick. Diet Rehab came out and was a financial failure. My publisher, who had been communicating with me daily, stopped returning my calls and emails. They withdrew all their marketing efforts from the book. I don’t blame them. That’s what you do when a book fails, and I had failed to hold up my end of the bargain.

Here’s how I overcame it in 3 steps.

Step 1: Mourn it. I felt sad. I felt disappointed. My literary agent, not one to mince words, told me: “with the dismal performance of your first book’s sales, it will be extremely difficult for me to get any publisher to take a chance on your ever again…but I’ll try.”

Step 2: Reframe what “success” means. Is the definition of “success” tied to a dollar amount or the number of copies sold? Or, does “success” mean you grow, learn, and do something that is purpose-driven? If the former, I was a failure. If the latter, I was a success. I learned so much along the way and honed my skills as a writer. So many editors and a co-writer were brought on board to help me with my first book. Now, I just need a quick, light edit for typos, and my books are good-to-go.

Step 3: Lead with instincts, and don’t chase dollar signs. When you do so, sometimes the dollar signs end up coming to you as a bonus. When I was selling my first book, I met with 25 different publishers. Of those 25 publishers, there was 1 my gut was telling me: there’s something special here. That publisher was Hay House. They did make an offer on my first book but it was significantly lower than the offer I took. I ended up selling to the highest bidder. For my second book, my literary agent approached Hay House directly. I took an advance that was a fraction of my first advance. That didn’t matter to me. I was getting a second chance. That book, The Brain Fog Fix, ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace. 

MD: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As a psychotherapist, I witness the primitive response of most human beings. We react. We get angry. We look for someone to blame. And then I see the beauty of forgiveness. To be honest, there have been times in my office where I have helped people find forgiveness and have thought to myself, “Wow. I don’t know if I could have forgiven that person.” But I also do know that forgiveness is ultimately the answer. If you are the survivor of horrific abuse, you can’t carry around resentment and anger forever. As Maya Angelou said, “it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive.” I think we as a nation need to act like we’re in a session of therapy…and eventually realize that in the end, only love can drive out hate.

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