How Do Negative Thoughts Impact My Brain?
Written by Shannon Carroll
Never before in my life had I considered how a single negative thought or memory was impacting me physically or emotionally. We are all familiar with the popular concept of “positive thinking.” In fact, this is something that is talked and preached about often in both the sacred and secular worlds. I’ve seen memes and quotes and multiple training videos on how powerful our thoughts are and how we must all work to think and talk with more positivity.
But some lessons have to be learned the hard way. Some life-concepts require life-experiences in order to really drive the point home.
One of the unexpected and shocking lessons from my husband’s bizarre amnesia experience was that negative thoughts actually physically hurt our brain! It took him having his brain wiped of 10+ years of memories for us to see this.
I think you’ll love reading the story from our own words in our book, “One Thing Remains.”
I distinctly remember being in our bedroom, and I was sharing with David stories of things that had happened over the years with our boys. I filled him in on some very tragic and traumatic circumstances. It was a whole lot for him to absorb, but at the moment, I was just rambling on and on with the difficult stories and seasons and details of our past. He paused, looked at me and clearly said, “Shannon, I don’t want to know ANYTHING negative anymore about anyone in our past – EVER. Please don’t share any negative information about anyone in our life again. I don’t have context for anything you’re sharing, and my brain doesn’t know where to put all of this new and troubling information. If there’s something important that I need to know, I’ll figure it out. Otherwise, I don’t want to know.”
David recounts, I remember as Shannon was telling me these difficult stories from our past, I felt physically ill. It was so overwhelming and everything inside of me was emphatically wanting to reject what I was hearing. I understand hat some information is necessary and useful. However, in this situation, I did not want anyone’s reported history to determine what I thought about them or how I interacted with them. The Bible says that we will be known by our fruit, and I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to stand on their own merit.
I was at a place where my mind could not reconcile negative information. I would hear something difficult or painful and it literally would just swirl around in my brain. I had no context for knowing what to do with the stories I was hearing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it all. It was information overload with random puzzle pieces that somehow were all mixed up and put in the wrong box.
Can Our Thoughts Actually Hurt Us?
Have you ever stopped to think about how easily we share and dwell on negativity – and what that might be doing not only to our brain, but our spirituality or emotional health?
Here in front of me was an example of an adult with a pretty clear brain, absent of brain fog, not affected by years of stressful memories. He had such clarity and sharpness while his memories were in essence scooped out.
And he was trying to communicate to me that when he heard a negative account or negative words, it caused him actual anguish and physical discomfort.
I believe those of us with all our memories intact don’t experience this because we’re basically numb to negativity. We hear and partake of it continually, so we’ve been desensitized. It’s normal and natural – and even expected – to:
- Gossip about others
- Dwell on negative experiences from the past
- Share awful news stories
- Think about ourselves in a negative light or put ourselves down
- Have critical thoughts about others
- Look for the bad
Yet even though we might not realize it, those thoughts are causing harm to us! Not only are they diminishing the power and clarity of our brain, but they’re bringing us down, changing our vibe and cutting us off from powerful potential.
It’s no wonder that the enemy’s mission is to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10) – and he does it through some conniving deception and attractive trickery. This is why so many Scriptures are written about taking our thoughts captive, being aware of our thoughts and choosing to think differently.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…
2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV)
So How Can I Change My Thoughts?
Jesus came that we might live life “abundantly” and I propose that a huge part of experiencing His abundance on this earth is from choosing to think differently from the world. We HAVE been given a hope and a future. We do have something to celebrate. We have been redeemed and are new creations, and these truths should be reflected in every part of our life, including how we think.
This doesn’t mean that we live with a “pie in the sky” mentality. Obviously, there are some tough things that we have to think about and process. Sometimes life is ugly and messy and we are going to need to lean into those moments.
Rather, I’m talking about getting to the root of what thoughts we are actually entertaining and deciding if those thoughts are TRUE or not. The Bible clearly gives us a checklist of the types of things we are to choose to dwell on.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8 (ESV)
This is also not a “think and become rich” or “name it and claim it” principle that I’m espousing. I don’t believe in putting thoughts out into the universe… But I do believe our thoughts have power because they, like a ship’s rudder, help to direct our actions. Therefore, we need to take stock of our thoughts on a regular basis!
I’ve developed a Brain Breakthrough Protocol based on my research during David’s amnesia and in it, I teach a myriad of lifestyle and nutrition tips to help improve our brain’s function and give it the support it is asking for. Here’s the link to watch the webinar!
Getting To the Root of Negative Thoughts
During David’s entire 26 days with this strange amnesia, he held to his conviction that he didn’t want me as his historian telling him anything negative about anyone. I had to bite my tongue so many times as I realized how easily and automatically I gravitated towards something negative or critical to share with him. Yikes! It was a constant battle for me and I was up against his determination to keep his brain free of negativity and full of hope and life.
We were thankfully exposed during this time to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s work as a brilliant neuroscientist. Her perspective that the brain can be changed and shaped by the mind really inspired us and gave us immense hope during David’s amnesia season. We highly recommend her book, “Switch On Your Brain.”
Her principles help us understand that we are not a victim to our brain, but we actually have control over our thoughts and the outcomes from it. I love this quote from her:
“What you are thinking every moment of every day becomes a physical reality in your brain and body, which affects your optimal mental and physical health. These thoughts collectively form your attitude, which is your state of mind, and it’s your attitude and not your DNA that determines much of the quality of your life.”
I don’t know about you, but I need this reminder every once in a while. When I find myself in a funk, feeling low, experiencing anxiety or just generally blah – if I’m honest – I’ll discover that the root of my feelings are the thoughts that I’m currently harboring. Most likely I’m choosing to continue to think about how someone hurt me, how I didn’t deserve that treatment, how upset I am that things didn’t work out, etc. And the outcome is always depression. Truly – our thoughts dictate our feelings.
It’s no fun to actually change our thoughts. It’s hard. And our brain likes to keep us protected by “comforting” us with lies and negativity. But choosing to change our thoughts or perspective will yield results of peace and joy, which is ultimately what we all really desire.
Here are 4 easy ways to start turning around the ship of our thoughts:
- Find 3 things to be thankful for in that moment. Gratitude gives our brain the pivot it needs.
- Listen to worship music. So many times, I feel incapable of changing my thoughts in the moment. But listening to music somehow redirects my brain. It offers beauty and a vehicle for a different path in my thoughts.
- Share with a trusted, wise friend. Meaningful, real and raw conversations with sweet friends have made a huge impact in my life over the years as they’ve helped me see a situation from a different perspective.
- Journal. Getting my thoughts out on paper somehow releases the hold they have on my brain. It’s a powerful exercise!
Hopefully you’ve been inspired as I was to start taking a more serious inventory of your thoughts. David’s unusual experience can be an eye-opening life lesson for all of us as we start to realize the immense impact our thoughts have on every part of our life. Here’s to happy thoughts!
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