Have you ever heard the saying, “You either control your mind or your mind will control you”? Well it’s true that we are often controlled by our minds. And maybe it's semantics, but I believe the best way forward is to manage our minds instead of aiming to control it. If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, to NOT to think of something – oops there it is.
I’ve always found it pointless when we’re told, “Don’t think negative. Don’t think about your past. Don’t worry about your future. Don’t be anxious” I’m sure we can all agree that advice, while well meaning, doesn't do much except remind you of what you’re not doing right.
Well thanks to a book I randomly picked up called “You Are Not Your Brain – A 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking & Taking Control of your Life”, it promises to show us the “How”. With its wordy title, the book does deliver what it promises on the cover.
The premise of the book is - for most of our lives we’ve been controlled by deceptive brain messages without realising it. These deceptive brain messages appear to be factual, sound like the truth and is something that we’ve heard repetitively. Often the core of the message is about us not being good enough, worthy enough or just plain old enough. Sound familiar?
The book explains that these deceptive messages flood our mental state because neurons in our brains have been wired together in a certain pattern, probably at a very young age, based on an incident in the past. It is a well known fact that what fires together, wires together; and that negative brain messages continue to play out throughout the rest of our lives.
Deceptive brain messages are birthed from a traumatic incident that you, the child, have experienced. It's probably something so old and buried so deep that you can’t remember. As a small child, being yelled at and shamed because you dropped a plate or fell down or was made fun of or was told to shut up and stop crying; formed an impression on us. Our young brain would then make sense of it – like I’m stupid, I’m not perfect, I’m not loved.
We will go through several decades before we realise that the Mean Voice is NOT us, is NOT the truth and is NOT reality. It’s just our deceptive brain messages going to town. Here’s some neuroscience facts which really helped clarify. It explains how different parts of the brain get activated during the habit cycle of a deceptive brain message.
This biological chemistry cycle goes like this: a deceptive brain message hits you as a thought or a desire, it then creates an uncomfortable physical emotion like shame, urges or cravings, and then your unhealthy habitual response takes over like a coping mechanism to get away from the discomfort.
The Biology of Deceptive Brain Messages:
While it is not clear where and how deceptive messages in the brain are stored because the brain is so complex, the book explains that it has roots in these brain areas below.
Frontal cortex - the part of the brain involved in strategy, organisation, detecting errors and more. Also known as the Executive Center
Hypothalamus - the part of the brain involved in hunger, thirst, sex and other bodily drives also known as the Drive Centre.
Amygdala - responsible for generating feelings of fear and physical sensations such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and sweating. The amygdala also assesses threats and sends signals that indicate this is something to fear.
Insula - responsible for generating “gut-level responses” such as dread, or what many would describe as a pit in my stomach,”
Basal Ganglia - responsible for your automatic thoughts and actions, your habits both physical and mental. So when the Oh-oh Centre above is activated, it will kick the basal ganglia into action.
In the case of deceptive brain messages, this means that every time you have an uncomfortable sensation that you want to get rid of, the basal ganglia plays a significant role in activating negative coping mechanisms.
The Unhealthy Brain Circuit Loop:
It’s not important for you to understand the biological terms, plus I’m simplifying the entire book too for this blog post, but just know that when your Executive Centre releases deceptive messages, your Oh-oh Centre gets activated and this triggers your Habit Centre to cope with the discomfort.
Here’s an example - let’s say you go to a party and your Executive Centre releases a deceptive message that no one likes you and no one is talking to you; this will trigger your Oh-oh Centre and you might start to feel anxious at the thought of being there, that sensation will then kick your Habit Centre into gear where you might smoke furiously to distract you from the uncomfortable sensation. And there you have it - a patterned condition of Being & Thinking.
The book provides these 4 steps to help you retrain your brain and manage any negative thought patterns which show up as destructive habits.
The Four Steps:
Step 1: Relabel
Identify your deceptive brain message and the uncomfortable sensations, call them what they really are. This is where you use your awareness and mindfulness to recognise the mean voices and thoughts are just distorted messages from your brain. This process requires practice. The more times you identify a faulty message and you are aware, the better you get at it. When you relabel, you are aware of the message and know that the content is false, that the urges and impulses do not have to be satisfied. You are not lost and swept away by your spiraling thoughts.
Also remember that sometimes brain messages come through as anxiety, panic, urges, and cravings. Emotions that we feel are triggered in the brain, so they are not always identified as thoughts. These emotions can make you feel as if something for real is wrong. That’s why this step to Relabel is so important, to be able to identify that this anxiety, depression, sadness, while you are feeling it, is not based in reality and not the truth. So being aware of what’s going on in your mind and your body is crucial for this stage.
Step 2: Reframe
The reframing process is where you change your relationship and your perception of the importance of these deceptive brain messages. They are false brain messages and it’s not you, it’s just your BRAIN. In fact, say that, “It’s my amygdala overriding my brain”. Reframing is an important aspect because this is where you know just because you think it or feel it, it doesn’t mean it’s true and you don’t see it as part of you. It’s a process to reevaluate the feeling or the thought from a loving perspective.
Reframing it as Biology, helps shift it away from you. This will help you stop berating yourself or being harsh and impatient if you are feeling negative. How you reframe it is up to you. Here are some examples:
It’s not me, it’s my amygdala.
It feels real but it’s my synapses firing.
It’s my brain making me crave that.
It’s a chemical imbalance not that I’m lazy or weak.
My brain is causing the anxiety, it’s not me.
Step 3: Refocus
Direct your attention to a new and wholesome activity even when the false messages are bothering you. This step is designed to help you rewire your brain in ways that are more aligned with your true self, to create healthier brain patterns with wholesome behaviors. This where you retrain your brain to respond to old messaging in a new way.
The premise here is that you can change how your brain is wired based on proven research that neurons that fire together, wire together and neuroplasticity. This means that your brain is malleable and you can carve out new pathways of information.
Refocusing gives you the confidence that through practice, you can override these deceptive messages, feelings or impulses. It teaches you, you have a choice, no matter how you’re feeling, that you can think and act in new and positive ways. It is empowering to know that you can retrain your brain.
For me personally, my way of refocusing is to play music, to dance around, to listen to a podcast, to research recipes - these are my quick, go-to activities that help direct my focus elsewhere and turn down the volume inside my mind.
Step 4: Revalue
See the thoughts, feelings, and urges for what they are. They are sensations caused by deceptive brain messages and they are not true and have no value. The key here is to choose to see life from the perspective of your loving and compassion Wise Advocate. Revaluing encourages you to work with another aspect of you - the Wise, Healthy & Loving Self instead. You can bet I was excited to read that a book on Neuroscience talked about the Wise Advocate.
The Wise Advocate or Wise Inner Self
The book suggests that throughout these 4 steps, we should be working with what they termed the Wise Advocate. The Wise part within us that reflects our true self without the distorted perceptions.
If you have been following my blog posts, you will know the whole messaging of Wise Inner Council is about learning Soul Tools & Techniques to connect to our Wise Inner Selves, to discover our own inner wisdom and create our path to an empowered life. The idea from the book is that you will lean on your Wise Advocate to help you decipher the deceptive brain messages, to help reframe and speak to yourself kindly, to advise you when cravings and urges hit and try to overwhelm.
You can simply just call on your Wise Inner Self each day and if you are looking to strengthen your relationship with it, you can check out my previous Blog Post on it.
It’s Not Me! It’s My Brain.
Give these 4 steps a try if you have been struggling with constant negative thoughts, if you have been feeling anxious, negative and down or have been trying to kick a habit and can’t stop beating yourself up about it. Tell yourself it’s not you, it’s your brain and see if that frees you from the prison that is your mind.