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Standing up to Negative Self-Talk

How do we quiet the inner critic in our brain?

        Are you constantly harassed by negative self-talk? If you placed a tape recorder in your brain would you constantly hear self-criticism, judgement and self-doubt? What if you could change these self-destructive habits and train your brain to think differently, with positive and encouraging self-talk? Learning how your mind and brain interact is the cutting edge approach to wellbeing and self-improvement. By understanding the connection between mind and body and the brain’s plasticity to change, you can reduce stress and anxiety and set yourself up for success in anything you desire.

I learned this recently while treating a young woman suffering from chronic insomnia. She became increasingly anxious about her inability to get a good night’s sleep. Each night she went to bed thinking “I’m never going to get to sleep”.  Her anxiety was making matters worse because instead of moving into a relaxed state which encourages the body to sleep, it increased the cortisol production in her brain and made it more difficult for her body to relax.  After trying various behavioral tools, and even a trial of medication,  I tried something different. I thought I could teach her to talk to herself in a way that would help her enter a relaxed state and visualize an environment where sleep would be a natural response. 

I suggested she talk to herself like a good mother who was lulling her small baby to sleep. We visualized and practiced the situation– how a mother would use gentle words, cooing sounds and lullabyes to help her baby relax.  She practiced singing a lullabye to herself and imagined she was being rocked to sleep by loving arms. She substituted the anxious and doubtful inner voice for one of soothing and reassurance. After a few weeks, her insomnia dramatically improved and she fell asleep easily on most nights. 

Research has discovered an amazing aspect of the brain, that it is not only responsive to suggestion, but it does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Thoughts and actions are processed seemingly interchangeably, and both stimulate physiological changes in grey matter. A Harvard study found that learning occurs in the brain whether a person is actually practicing an activity (the piano, in one case) or imagining doing so. Another experiment found similar changes whether athletes were practicing foul shots, or only imagining doing it. The brain learned by imagining an activity as well as by doing it. My patient’s insomnia improved because her brain experienced that she was being soothed to sleep. She imagined the loving mother as real, even if it was her imagination, and her body responded by relaxing and preparing itself for sleep. The key is to commit fully to the imagination and create a strong visualization to help the brain respond as desired.  

This knowledge can be applied to a variety of behaviors. To reduce unhealthy impulses, such as eating or drinking too much, or any other habitual activities (even rumination or obsessive thinking), imagine yourself choosing to avoid old habits by imagining making positive choices instead.  Ask yourself what you need and if there is another way to satisfy this need besides resorting to old habits and behaviors.  You can encourage your brain to act as you direct it if you speak in encouraging and compassionate ways. Compulsive behaviors are often defenses against painful feelings and we develop defensive habits to avoid confronting them. These habits make us angry at ourselves. By making a conscious decision to direct your actions in positive ways, you regain self-control and learn that feelings are manageable and don’t have to be avoided.  You will be kinder to yourself and speak in a more positive manner.  This fascinating research puts you in the driver’s seat of your life.  We have far greater power over our thoughts and actions than we think. We have brains that are receptive to the imagination, compassion and understanding that you can learn to cultivate in yourself.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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