What may once have been a “normal” level of anxiety in our lives pre-COVID has assumed far greater proportions now for so many people. But at what cost to our brains and to our health even beyond the health fears associated with this virus?
There has been a fair amount of research regarding not only the number of thoughts we have each day, but also the effects of negative thinking on our brain as well as our general health. Recent research findings in 2020 from psychologists at Queens University in Canada indicate that humans may have well over 6,000 unique thoughts each day1; earlier figures released by the National Science Foundation in 2005 ranged from 12,000 to possibly 60,000 daily thoughts. Of those, the NSF concluded that as many as 80% were negative and 95% were repetitive.
And what about those repetitive negative thoughts? Other investigations conducted at Kings College, London have linked this type of thinking to an increased potential of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.2
In the face of so many external factors that fill our days and our screens now it’s not surprising we are more worried, anxious, exhausted and just lost in the madness as our brains desperately attempt to sort fact from fiction or prioritize the thoughts swirling in our head.
So what can we do?
We’re only human. It’s likely you too have found yourself feeling more irritable, even angry, caught up in behaviors you typically wouldn’t exhibit and getting dragged down by divisiveness or what seems like so much hate everywhere we look. So, aside from all the things we’ve recommended before (get outside, step away from the devices, meditate, exercise) how do we regain control of our own minds and our emotions and separate our thinking from all these harmful influences?
Practice kindness. Sounds simple enough, but according to the Mayo Clinic “physiologically, kindness can positively change your brain. Being kind boosts serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters in the brain that give you feelings of satisfaction and well-being, and cause the pleasure/reward centers in your brain to light up. Endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain killer, also can be released.” And don’t forget to include yourself in acts of kindness – being good to yourself is just as rewarding.
Practice neuroplasticity. Our brain’s ability to adapt, or neuroplasticity, allows us to learn something new and make new connections that can change our neurons and ultimately change the way we think.3 This gives us the opportunity to potentially replace those negative thoughts with more positive ones and reduce the burden of harmful impacts to our minds and body while we also strengthen cognition, learning, and memory.
Visit https://positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity/ for more about neuroplasticity and some simple exercises to try.
We could all use a little grace.
Certainly it’s like our world and our minds have been held captive by negativity, almost as if we keep playing the same song over and over again as we continually rethink the worries, the fears and, unfortunately, even translate these into words (or actions) that hurt us and hurt others. But in the midst of having these concerns I happened to hear a beautiful melody that so perfectly reflected my own sentiments…and the idea that we really could all use a little grace, some “courteous goodwill” or “an act of kindness” right now. So, I’m sharing this song with you (which I’ve probably listened to about a hundred times now) to take along on a drive, a walk, or just sitting in a quiet place and I hope it’s as meaningful and helpful to your state of mind too.
We all strive for purpose and understanding, to hear and to be heard, to see and to be seen. In these difficult times, I pray we can move forward with grace and dignity, faith and love, kindness and compassion and be willing to listen more and forgive more easily - for the sake of our collective wellbeing.
In hope, healing and with gratitude,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
1 Tseng, J., Poppenk, J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun 11, 3480 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9
2 Natalie L. Marchant, Lise R. Lovland, Rebecca Jones, Alexa Pichet Binette, Julie Gonneaud, Eider M. Arenaza‐Urquijo, Gael Chételat, Sylvia Villeneuve for the PREVENT‐AD Research Group.
(June 2020). Repetitive negative thinking is associated with amyloid, tau, and cognitive decline. https://alz-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/alz.12116. (Retrieved 11/172020)
3 Vanderbilt University, News