BY DR. ATHENA STAIK, PH.D.
MARCH 29, 2023
Words are powerful. The cells of your body are ever listening to what you think and say. The power of words lies in that, the emotion-laden images they form signal the systems of your body to take corresponding actions.
They build physical structures in your brain, known as neuralpathways, that shape your behaviors.
Your body's operating system, the subconscious mind, regards these as commands, or status reports, on how safe or good you feel, at any given moment, about yourself and life. These molecules of emotion, or neurotransmitters, act as messengers that tell the systems of the body what to do. Emotions decide, for example, whether your body's autonomic nervous system (ANS) will remain in the parasympathetic division of the ANS, or "learning or growth mode"; or shift to the sympathetic division, or "fight/flight or survival mode.
When you say something like, "I don't want to feel upset," for example, your body mind automatically displays images of you feeling upset. This releases stress hormones in the bloodstream. You told yourself not to get upset; however, the words you used had an opposite effect.
Emotions control behaviors; not logic. Molecules of emotion literally "fire and wire" the neuropathways of the brain that shape your behaviors, the habits you form or break, and the direction your life takes.
Emotions of fear, core survival fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, in particular, can have a paralyzing effect on these processes. Unless you know how to handle them in ways that calm your body when you're upset, your body's survival mode will take over.
It is estimated that you have about 60,000 thoughts a day, and that most of these are thinking patterns you learned in early childhood, which by the way is an outcome of your brain automatically tuning into your parents' brains.
The high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones that limiting beliefs release into the bloodstream, when prolonged, have a detrimental effect on the health of your brain and body overtime.
To the extent you remain unaware of your self-talk, much of your life and the choices you make yourself will remain under the control of subconscious processes.
Here are 4 shifts in your self-talk that can optimally boost your body's physiology.
1. Turn a criticism into a clear request.
Become aware of "inner critic" or judging self-talk. This intensifies survival fears, producing low-energy emotional states in you. High level fears release stress hormones in the bloodstream that block creative thinking in addition to activating defense patterns. When this happens, the increases in cortisol turn off your brain’s learning mode. This explains why neither you nor another can hear the other in defensive mode. Pause to reframe a criticism into a high-energy request. If you feel annoyed, for example, instead of saying,”I hate this," try self assuring words such as, “Even though I don't like this situation, I will hang in here to show I care and value myself."
2. Use solution focused language.
When you address a problem, pause to describe the issue using solution oriented words. Instead of saying, "I'm always late," for example, speak words that activate neural circuitry that releases feel good hormones. Rather than a focus on the problem, a focus on solutions also inspires and moves you to take action. Try self-talk that sparks possibility thinking, motivates you with a fresh, energizing perspective, or a desired change, such as, "I like the image of being on time! I wonder how many benefits this will bring."
3. Replace judgements with curiosity.
Over time, fault-finding patterns tend to make people more cynical, and these patterns can hurt relationships. Try curiosity instead. The emotion of curiosity motivates you to engage in possibility thinking. It also inspires you and others to expand your inner capacity for compassion-based, collaborative actions. Instead of saying, “She’s so mean and controlling today,” think to yourself, “I wonder if she is upset or needs something; I'll ask.” You are more likely to see changes in another's behaviors, and gain their support in your endeavors, when you express you genuinely care about their feelings, respect them as persons, and want to support them to get their wants met when possible.
4. Use possibility thinking instead of venting.
One stubborn pattern to break is venting. Contrary to what many believe, venting is not expressing yourself. A pattern of ruminating on past "hurts" or stacking "what went wrong" puts your brain and body on a roller coaster of emotions. On the one hand, venting elevates stress hormones, but on the other hand, venting also releases addictive "quick fixes" of feel good hormones that lower anxiety. Instead of making statements such as, “I always end up with the short end of the stick,” consider saying things like, "I have a lot to feel grateful for" or "The silver lining in this is...!" To change a venting pattern, written work is a proven activity; try writing down what you're grateful for at the end of each day, and starting each morning reading your list aloud.
In sum, words are emotion- and behavior-activating agents. Whereas words of criticism can drain your energy, and keep you stuck in defensive reactivity, inspiring words produce inspiring images and activate solution oriented actions. Possibility thinking is a good way to break and replace energy draining patterns such as venting.
Break free of fear-activating thinking patterns by cultivating an awareness of your self-talk, and shifting the focus of your thoughts, to create images that boost the physiology of your body and well-being.