As I have begun to explore this collective deep need to feel as though we belong, that we are connected and that we are known, I keep finding myself researching the brain. Maybe it’s my medical background, my own experience with loneliness or maybe it’s because so much of the data points back to the power of patterned thoughts in our brain.
It truly is remarkable how our emotions, connection and sense of well-being are so centered in this area of our being.
There are so many things we can do externally to develop healthy relationship. We have all seen the articles titled, “The top 10 ways to make friends.” But so many find themselves going through the “checklist” only to discover they are back to square one, just as lonely and disconnected as before. Why is this?
I believe there is a powerful role we play. Not in what we DO, but in what we THINK.
In a 2018 article from Psychology today, Joe Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and the author or Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, talks about the need for resetting and rewiring our brain.
“This negative feedback loop is what makes chronic loneliness (as opposed to situational loneliness, which comes and goes in everyone's life) so frustratingly intractable. In people who've been lonely for a long time, the fight-or-flight response has kicked into perpetual overdrive, making them defensive and wary in social settings. Chronically lonely people tend to approach a social interaction with the expectation that it will be unfulfilling and to look for evidence that they're right. Lonely people pay more attention to negative signals from others, interpreting judgment and rejection where it is not intended. Without being aware of it, they sabotage their own efforts to connect with others.” (A Cure For Disconnection by Jennifer Lawson; March 7, 2018. PsychologyToday.com)
Knowing there is a need to rewire our brains, helps us discover the power of rethinking our automatic thoughts. Dr. Daniel Amen calls them, our ANTS. Which stands for “Automatic Negative Thoughts.”
In his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life Dr. Amen speaks of these 9 ANTS.
1.“Always/never” thinking: thinking in words like always, never, no one
2. Focusing on the negative: seeing only the bad in a situation
3. Fortune-Telling: predicting the worst possible outcome
4. Mind reading: believing that you know what others are thinking
5. Thinking with your feelings: believing negative feelings
6. Guilt beating: thinking in words like should, must, ought or have to
7. Labeling: attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else
8. Personalizing: Investing innocuous events with personal meaning
9. Blaming: blaming someone else for your own problems
Dr. Amen goes on to say,
“Sometimes people have trouble talking back to these grossly unpleasant thoughts, because they feel that such obvious age-old “truisms” simply must be real. They think that if they don’t continue to believe these thoughts, they are lying to themselves. Once again, remember that to know what is true and what is not, you have to be conscious of the thoughts and have an intelligent perspective on them. Most negative thinking is automatic and goes unnoticed. You’re not really choosing how to respond to your situation, it’s being chosen for you, by bad brain habits. To find out what is really true or not, you need to question it. Don’t believe everything you hear- even in your own mind.”
As I was learning about the Deep Limbic System, the walnut size area near the center of our brain where our emotional tone is set. I thought about how it processes our sense of smell, stores highly charged emotional memories and affects sleep and appetite cycles, moods, sexuality and bonding. Since I am most interested in connection, I thought I would look into how one goes about calming and healing this area of our brain.
Dr. Amen suggests that to heal deep limbic problems there are various factors involved. For example focusing on accurate thinking, proper management of memories, the connection between pleasant smells and moods and building positive bonds with others all play a role in Deep Limbic health.
Many of us don’t realize the significance of our thoughts and development of thought patterns. We leave them to chance. Dr. Amen states that every thought we have sends electrical signals throughout our brains. These thoughts have actual physical properties that are real. They have significant influence on the cells in our body. Dr. Amen says,
“When your mind is burdened with many negative thoughts, it affects your deep limbic system and causes deep limbic problems (irritability, moodiness, depression etc.) Teaching yourself to control and direct thoughts in a positive way is one of the most effective ways to feel better.”
I thought a good way to end our discussion on the deep limbic system is by going thru some of the steps that Dr. Amen lays out in his book. I’ve summarized them as to capture the heart of his message.
Step 1: Realize that your thoughts are real
-you have a thought
-your brain releases chemicals
-An electrical transmission goes across your brain
-you become aware of what you are thinking
Step 2: Notice how thoughts affect your body
-Think about the last time you were mad. How did your body feel?
muscles tense? Heart race? Hands sweat? Feel dizzy?
-Think about the last time you had a really happy thought? How did your body feel? Muscles relax, heart rate slows, breathe deeper.
-Notice how your body reacts to every thought you have
Step 3: Don’t Breathe it or Believe it
Think of bad thoughts as pollution. Understand that your automatic thoughts don’t always tell the truth. One student believed his was “stupid” because he didn’t do well on tests. After getting his IQ tested it was discovered he was a genius. Your thoughts can lie to you.
Step 4: Identify the ANTS
You can train your thoughts to be positive and hopeful, or you can allow them to be negative and upset you. Once you learn about your thoughts, you can choose to think good thoughts and feel better or you can choose to think bad thoughts and feel lousy.
Write them down and talk back to them. Identify which category or “species” of the 9 ANTS your thought falls into.
In summary, we are wired for connection. We desire it. We were made for healthy relationships. But we also have a way of believing past experiences and outcomes have a right to dictate our future. As more and more research is coming out on the powerful chemistry that happens in our brain when we RE-THINK our realities, we find we are given another chance. Another chance to see the rainbow in the storm, the rose through the thorns and the hope that is always there if we will chose it.
There is much more to this discussion. I don’t want to end without acknowledging the need that many have for some anti-depression medication to help stabalize a tired limbic system. There is also incredible power in a wise counselor, and a vigorous physical workout. We are complex human beings. Grace for the journey!
Exercise on identifying ANTS
You never listen to me
The boss doesn’t like me
The whole class will laugh at me
It’s your fault we have these marital problems
Answers 1. Always/Never thinking 2.Mind Reading 3.Fortune-Telling 4. Labeling 5. Blaming