Read time: 45 minutes

This article outlines what science has come to understand are the main reasons why we can start thinking more and more negative thoughts. It then works through different ways you can counteract these subconscious behaviours and live a more positive, happy and fulfilled life.

 

Surely I am not the only one who feels their younger self was more positive? Don’t get me wrong, on the scale of emotions I am firmly seated in the ‘happy person’ bracket, but I still get that internal dialog which compares me with the rest of the world.

This post will show how easy it can be to spiral, and find yourself thinking one negative thought after the other.

The Science world says negative thinking gets worse over time, because of something called the ‘Emotional Refractory Period’. This is how we use our knowledge of the past to respond to current events. If we have had a negative past experience, then we will see the current event through that filter. We then look for events which reinforce our viewpoint.

Interestingly, a lot of old thought patterns are hidden in our subconscious, so we are not aware they are affecting our thoughts today. That means even if we try to see a current situation in a positive light, our past can undermine us, as it will look for external stimuli to reinforce that negative feeling.

This may all make it sound like change is impossible, but it can be done, and we will outline how later in this post.

How we Perceive the Outside World is Affected by our Past Experiences:

Guys throughout this post the key thing to remember is:

“Previous life experiences will affect how you perceive the outside world today.”

…and I mean this in every way possible. How you interpret information (also called external stimuli, will be a direct result of:
• How you were brought up.
• What your parents taught you.
• What their beliefs are.
• How well-off your family were
• The environment you were brought up in.

Even your sex, religion and the larger cultural context surrounding you, will determine your interpretation of the outside world.

You may reflect on this today and realize the political party you support is the one your parent’s have always followed. Maybe you can see some of your beliefs match theirs, or perhaps you attend church, eat certain foods, or have picked a specific career because those around you did that when you were young.

I’m not saying any of this is bad. It makes us who we are.

You don’t have to copy anything that doesn’t feel right to you. More importantly I would encourage you to be aware of these cultural norms when dealing with the outside world. What you have been told and how you have been brought up will affect how you perceive things. It will also affect how others see you. Therefore this means we all view the world a little differently.

Joe Dispenza calls this ‘Maladaptive Stress Reaction’, which basically means; we cannot react today without first viewing the situation through past events.

Add to this the leftover belief patterns of any traumas we may have gone through, and over time our perception of the outside world becomes more and more individualised.

These traumas don’t even need to be a major life event. It could be something we may feel today as seemingly insignificant. For example, you may not even remember being left alone as a baby, but as an adult that could spiral into abandonment issues.

How our Emotions Create our Personality:

I wanted to start by showing you the graph below. While doing his 2007 research on the Emotional Refractory Period, (which we will go through in a moment,) Ekman created this memorised emotional pattern graph:

In essence this graph shows us how one thought or event can spiral over time, into a long-term personality trait.

I first heard about this theory from Jess Lively in her 2018 course entitled C School. This theory is key in helping us understand how our negative thought patterns worsen over time.

Imagine you are walking down the street and someone walks into you. Instantly angered they call you something’. Taken aback you reply with an equally intolerant comment before walking on. This is your reaction.

Hopefully on a day to day basis, those small, not so fun interactions, are soon forgotten and you can move on.

 

However, if that is not possible and you keep ruminating over what was said, along with other negative events, for a period of a few hours or days, then it will become your current mood. At that point, if further negative things happen to reinforce your bad mood, then you could start feeling worse and worse.

If you keep that mood going, within a week to one month it will become a temperament. It is natural for us humans to look for outside examples that our feelings are justified; so we start to filter outside information, looking for things that reinforce our current thought pattern/temperament. This in turn makes that feeling more profound.

If you keep that temperament, after one year it will be a personality trait. Once it has become a personality trait, then it is an unconscious behaviour, and these behaviours are much harder to resolve.

Interestingly, Epigenetics (the study of cells) states cells are born, reproduce and die all the time. These scientists have found that cells store emotions, so over time, even our DNA can take on personality traits. That means if we are cultivating negative emotions, when an old cell dies, more and more new cells are made with the new negative thought patterns imprinted onto them.

In fact, cells can get addicted to the specific hormones that some emotions create, so they guide us into situations that create that emotional fix again and again. That means it can take several years to find ourselves in these negative thought patterns, but once we are in them, our subconscious can have us reliving it again and again.

The Psychological Refractory Period:

Now let’s move on and talk about Ekman’s work on the Emotional Refractory Period (ERP). He found it was almost like a chicken and egg situation, with the memories emotional pattern. Both perpetuating each other, it is hard to unravel which would have started first.

ERP is an expansion of research on the Psychological Refractory Period. This refers to the general time it takes to refer to past experiences/memories to create a point of reference or understanding of a current situation. While ERP is specific to the emotional reaction time.

Back in time, if a wild cat was chasing us, our fight or flight mechanism would kick in. This reaction is unconscious, and is the momentary decision to either run away or fight.

So what is actually happening:
We see the cat and our brain notes the danger.
Our brain tells the Amygdala there is danger.
The Amygdala reacts by getting the rest of the body ready for fight or flight.
Generally, we start to run..fast!

This unconscious process is called our Automatic Appraisal Phase (AAP). A phrase coined by Ekman himself. He later used it in his 2008 research with the Dalai Lama, which we talk about at the end of this post (yes guys the Dalai Lama is truly at the forefront of research into happiness. How cool is that).

Ekman highlighted that when the AAP is in progress, the thinking part of our brain closes down. That means we are operating from our unconscious, so we would have found ourselves running away from the fear before we even consciously experience the feeling of fear.

That is fine in life-threatening situations, but Ekman found the same process is triggered today when we are angry. This means our thinking mind can close down in an argument, and we can act irresponsibly.

Have you ever been in a disagreement with someone but can’t think of a good comeback. Then hours later you wish you had said ‘x’,instead of ‘y’. Well this delay is a perfect example of our thinking brain shutting down while we are in AAP and then starting up again a few hours later.

Recalling past memories can also set in motion the AAP Response. If you look at the graph below you can see the emotional trigger could be anything from an upsetting comment to a look. We then try and reason this event by unconsciously reviewing our previous life experiences, to help us come to a conclusion. Our body then uses past memories to interpret what has happened, and will release the relevant hormones to match this conclusion. So that could be anything from happy hormones to adrenaline preparing us for a fight. This whole process is called the Emotional Refractory Period.

Above: This graph outlines the Automatic Appraisal Phase we go through when processing an emotional trigger.

 

The key take away to remember, is when a current upsetting event has triggered the Automatic Appraisal in us, we won’t be operating from our most sensible, best self!

And by replaying the same negative thought pattern over again and again in our minds, we keep going through the Emotional Refractory Period. Releasing the same emotions and in essence most likely forming negative personality traits.

Joe Dispenza states about 95% of who we are by the age of 35/midlife, is a series of subconscious programs that play out automatically. That means how we judge situations is as subconscious as brushing our teeth, emotional eating and taking the same route to work every day. That also means by this age, we have gone through the Emotional Refractory Period so many times that some personality traits (good and bad) are firmly set inside us.

The good news is, it is still possible to alter this behaviour…

How to Stop Thinking Negatively:

Let’s start with a really positive fact. Abraham Hicks states you only have to have a positive thought for 17 seconds before you attract other similar thoughts. That means your only 17 seconds away from improving your day right now.

Now it would be easy for me to say just keep thinking those happy thoughts and all will be well. The problem is, as I tried to highlight using the Emotional Refractory Period, our personality is a long term creation of thousands of short term events. And once this has become part of our unconscious programming, it becomes much harder to get rid of.

Above: This image illustrates how we normally only operate from the 5% of our brain that is conscious. While we have little control of the 95% of our brain which is in the subconscious. The illustration uses the analogy of an iceberg. A small amount is normally visible above the water, whilst the majority of the iceberg is submerged under the water.

Fact, our conscious is only 5% of our mind, while 95% is our subconscious.

So it’s a little like the image of the iceberg above. From a ship, we can see only a small amount of the iceberg. The larger amount is floating out of sight, under the water. The reason this analogy is so relevant, is it highlights just how much larger our unconscious brain is, and therefore how easy it is for it to undermine any conscious thoughts we may have, without us even being aware.

An example of this would be someone who keeps stating the affirmation ‘I am wealthy’ every day. However their wealth does not increase. This is likely because that person has unconscious beliefs about money which are in direct disagreement with that statement.

To truly change our behaviour, and become a generally more happy person, we need to access our subconscious thoughts, delete or correct them and then we can start working on consciously changing our future behaviour.

This takes a two prong approach:

1. Heal the past: Working on accessing your subconscious beliefs and programs so you can heal them.

2. Focus on changing your daily behavior moving forward: Consciously going about your day being aware of your thoughts so you stop adding any more negative beliefs to your subconscious.

Let’s start by looking into healing our past first…

Working on Eliminating Unconscious Beliefs:

If you want real, long lasting change, I’d strongly recommend working through past events first. That way, you are clearing out that unconscious programming that otherwise may hold you back, without you even knowing about it.

Below I have listed a selection of holistic therapies I have tried and can recommend. (There are many out there I’ve not tried so cannot talk about. If you want to contact me and tell me about the ones you know please do.)

All these therapies have the ability to access the unconscious mind and work on healing thought patterns that are not serving you. I’ve included ones you can do yourself, as well as ones you need a professional to guide you through. I have also highlighted the therapies that don’t require you to state out loud any events which you may find to upsetting to talk about:

Therapies which need a professional:

Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT) and General Hypnotherapy:

RTT is a specific form of hypnotherapy. In both cases you would generally come to a session with a specific issue you want to work on. They will then try and find the root cause of that feeling or behaviour.

FYI: We normally think we can identify the cause of an emotional upset. However, in my experiences (I am trained in hypnotherapy), those reasons do not come up as one of the major events, but as the root cause, which normally occurs so early in our life, that we cannot remember it happening (again that event is hidden in our subconscious).

The therapist then works with you to resolve that event, and helps you find ways to do things differently in the future.

Reassuringly for some, you do not have to say out loud any events that come up if you don’t want to talk about them. As long as the therapist knows you can see an event, that is enough for the therapy to help.

HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF RTT

Systematic Kinesiology:

For this therapy, the therapist muscle tests your body to see what is wrong and also to find out the best way to heal it. I am trained in this process as well, and I’ve found a demonstration video of my teacher (see below) so you can see how muscle testing works.

In essence, the therapist asks a question before slightly trying to move your arm or leg while you resist. If the question receives a positive response from you, then the muscle stays strong and the therapist cannot move the limb. However, if it weakens you and the muscle resistance lessens, then there is something that needs to be worked on.

It is fascinating to see how a weak muscle goes strong once the therapist has worked through an emotional issue with you.

Again, you don’t have to tell the therapist anything you don’t want to. They just need to know you’re thinking about it and then they can help you.

Work on Your Own?

I would always recommend working with a professional who can guide you through the process and help you through any particularly hard issues. However for the easier, less deep problems, there are some things you can do yourself:

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT):

This is a technique you can go to a class and learn. Once you have learned the technique you can use it anytime you feel you need to release a trapped emotion.

Doing this the technique involves tapping on meridian lines of the body. These are the same points acupuncturists use. By stimulating these, it is possible to move emotions out of the body.

Tapping on these points can bring emotions to the surface. You can even feel slight physical changes. Therefore please look after yourself and only use these unsupervised techniques for minor issues and limit your work to one issue per session. Slow and steady wins the race here.

The Emotion Code by Bradley Nelson:

This book starts by also highlighting how emotions and old thought patterns can become stuck in the body. It then leads you through its own unique process to help you release these emotions.

The process involves a method that allows you to muscle test yourself. (Personally I’m not great at doing this type of testing on myself, but I know many people who can, and who use this process all the time.)

Crystals:

For those of you who know you need to make changes, but you are not ready for the above options yet, I would suggest keeping a crystal or two close to hand. I know this is a little woo woo for many people, but the science behind crystals may help you understand why they are a good place to start.

In essence the atoms of a crystal vibrate at a very stable rate. While we as humans can be literally all over the place. When we place a crystal near to us, we start to match it’s vibration and calm down. Although it is always a stable vibration, different crystals vibrate at different frequencies, so are useful for different things. Some crystals vibrate at a frequency which means they are useful at helping us release past trauma and beliefs. So having these nearby could be a good starting place for you.

Why we Need to Look After our Emotional Health on a Daily Basis

While we are dealing with issues from the past, it is important to make positive daily changes so we are not adding to our unconscious baggage in the future.

These changes are closely related to our stress levels and the brain waves that they create.

How Brains Waves Relate to our Stress Levels:

We all know thinking negative thoughts makes us feel bad, and the more negative thoughts we think, the worse we feel. But for this blog post, I’m going to approach this from a different angle by focusing on what is happening to our brain waves when we are doing this.

If you look at the image above you can see the High Beta brain waves are much faster (closer together) than the lower brain waves of Alpha and Theta. Theta is the same brain state we are in as we fall to sleep at night. It is also the brain wave enjoyed in meditation.

In contrast, Low Beta is the brain wave we are in when completing everyday tasks. We then jump up into High Beta when we are stressed or upset. People in the Emotional Refractory Period, who find their reasoning part of the brain has switched off, are in High Beta Brain Waves.

So can you guess where I’m going here…

…your mission, if you choose to accept it (sorry I couldn’t resist that)….

… is to reduce the amount of time you spend in High Beta. That is because stress leads to unreasonable thoughts and more emotional ‘stuff’ getting stuck in the subconscious. Instead we want to to operate at a slower brain wave state so you can be conscious in your everyday life. From conscious thinking we can reason away negativity. So how do we do this?

Dealing with Stressful Situations:

Let’s start with what to do when you’re confronted with an upsetting situation.

The goal is to live our lives in a lower, less stressful brain wave state, so when we are confronted with stress, we can operate from a more conscious place. You will be amazed how differently you then respond.

For example, you may already be aware of the kind of situation that will trigger the ERP in you. You may also be very aware how ERP effects you.

But what do you do instead? Journalist Roma Sharma from Medium.com suggests the best way to confront ERP when it is happening is to walk away from the situation and wait until both parties have calmed down, then you are not operating from that irrational, unconscious state.

She suggested it is best to then take time to review both sides of an argument/situation before having the talk to try and resolve it.

I would completely agree with this. After all, nothing is really that black and white, and most of the time the truth is in the grey area anyway. Therefore, we need to think rationally to be able to see both sides of an argument..

From my experience, the best tool I have found to process thoughts like this is ‘The Work’ by Byron Katie. This surprising simply set of questions allows you to sit down on your own and process a situation so you can see both points of view.

So now you know how to deal with conflict from this more conscious perspective, let’s look at how to cultivate this stress free mindset.

Daily Emotional Health Rituals:

Let me start with a mini story about myself.

I found myself thinking particularly negative thoughts several years ago, so someone suggested I read ‘The Artist Way’ by Julia Cameron and complete the daily pages outlined in her book. In essence this is free form journalling. She asks that you write 3 pages first thing each morning about anything that comes into your mind.

I found I often started by writing general comments about the previous 24 hours, then I would go through a period of having nothing to write… but if I kept going the real emotions kicked in and I could start processing my worries by putting pen to paper. Clearly the author wants us to complete those 3 pages because after a few lines the real juicy stuff starts coming up.

After several weeks my conclusion was, by getting everything out of my head, I was naturally reducing my stress levels. On days I had done my morning pages it took away any excess mind chatter and any stress which came up didn’t really overwhelm me. In contrast, on days I didn’t journal, all that stress was still there, and it would be a lot easier for me to slip into overwhelm.

Although I cannot scientifically prove this part, I would now suggest the writing task was reducing my brain state (into Alpha, maybe even Theta). That meant getting up to High Beta would be much harder. However on days I didn’t write, I likely began the day in Beta so moving up into High Beta would be much quicker.

So basically, a daily routine that aims to reduce our stress levels makes all the difference.

Like me, for you this could include the Morning Pages.

Alternatively, many people see writing down what they are grateful for (their gratitudes), is also a good way to improve their emotional state. Most gratitude books on the high street, only ask for you to write three items you are grateful for each day. From personal experience, that doesn’t really engage me enough to truly change my mindset.

Instead, consider trying what Abraham Hicks calls a Rampage of Appreciation. This involves writing page after page of things you are grateful for. After a page or two you have to be more creative with your points, which like the Morning Pages, seems to up the intensity of the work and the emotional pick-me-up is bigger and bigger.

The other major way we can seek calm is through meditation.

I am aware some people believe they are terrible at meditation because they find it impossible to clear their mind. The secret is nearly all of us find it near to impossible to stop that mind chatter. The actual goal of meditation, is not necessarily to stop those thoughts altogether, but instead to realise they are there and start taking control of them, instead of allowing them to control us.

When you’re in a meditative state, the goal is to be peaceful and try to keep your mind clear of thought. Then when you do think that thought, you go back to being peaceful again. Over time it is almost like the thoughts give up and the mind chatter reduces. While you are doing this you are going into those slower brain states.

Below are a few guided Meditations I would recommend to get you started.

Add meditation recommendations
ALSO DO SOME GUIDED MEDITATION VIDEOS.

The other meditation myth is that you have to meditate for long periods of time each day. The School of Heartmath explains, if you use their technique, you only need to do a few minutes each day. They even have a meditation tool that monitors your brainwaves and gives you tasks to do, so you can reach the best possible state in the shortest amount of time. I love this tool and all their techniques, and find it is the perfect option on a busy day when I can’t meditate for very long.

Let’s finish talking about meditation and go full circle back to the research of Ekman and the Dalai Lama again. Once they had learned about the ERP process, they wondered if meditating every day would reduce the the amount of time we spend processing events in AAP.

We have learnt that actions such as meditation reduces our stress levels and brain wave states. Ekman and the Dalai Lama therefore wondered, if it would also bring us out of an AAP state faster, so we can react from our conscious state quicker. Their results are shown in the graph below.

In this graph, the practice of meditation has been given the wonderfully scientific phrase, the ‘Development of Meta Attention’. The outcome on the graph clearly shows that people who have been practicing meditation, do indeed pop out of the refractory period much faster. From that more conscious state, you can see it also allows them to think up more creative responses to the issue.

Above: This graph highlights how we can come out of the Automatic Appraisal Process and Refractory Period faster if we also develop mindfulness practices like Meditation. The outcome is our conscious mind is activated again much faster, stopping unconscious automatic responses, like old negative thought patterns and instead gives us the chance to think new, more positive thoughts.

Above: This graph shows just how quickly we come out of the Refractory Period (CA2), once we start practicing mindfulness, compared to having no mindnessfull practice (CA1).

Summary:

We have reached the end of this post so let’s finish by summarising what we have covered.

The Memories Emotions Pattern, shows how one thought can be perpetuated over time, to create underlying negative personality traits, which hang-out in our unconscious (so we may not be aware of them).

At the same time, we go through the Emotional Refractory Period regularly, when interpreting a current situation. In that process, our conscious reasoning brain switches off, and we interpret the situation from those unconscious, potentially negative, and therefore unhelpful personality traits.

As humans we naturally want to find outside stimulus that highlights why we are right, so sadly if we have lots of unconscious negative personality traits, then we will be looking for more negative thought patterns to prove our argument, and we end up in a negative spiral.

That means no matter how many times we think conscious, happy thoughts, if our subconscious programming disagrees then change is hard. To truly change our behaviour and become a generally more happy person, we need to access our unconscious thoughts, delete or edit them, and then we can start working consciously to change our future behaviour.

In this blog post we have outlined several holistic therapies and mindful techniques which can help to do this. The main aim of which is to reduce stress levels in our brain. This is so we can spend more time in the slower brain wave state, that allows us to respond from a conscious place. They also help us pop out of the Refractory Period faster when we are triggered.

Final note:

We live in a society of quick fixes, however long term happiness cannot be reached in 24 hours. Saying that, making some positive steps today (like buying that book or booking a holistic therapy session) is a good start.

Remember we have already said that some negative thought patterns could have taken years to become firmly embedded in your unconscious. So hopefully, after several therapy sessions you will be feeling like you are making some real positive progress. If you also start a daily ritual to combat any current emotional ups and down, then you will soon see real change.

Have compassion for yourself – being aware and willing to make these changes is a major step in the right direction, so don’t beat yourself up on the days you’re triggered and you find old programs playing out. In fact rejoice in the fact that you can now see it happening, because seeing how behaviours play out is a major step in the right direction.

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