01.01.2011

Language of the Mind

Our thought language affects our health but we can learn to control it
Language probably developed about 35,000 years ago and was the real step for the development of our minds and everything about us. Language is an essential medium for all the activities we associate with the thinking mind, including conscious awareness and reflection, analytical and abstract reasoning, planning, anticipating and predicting the future, problem solving and skill learning. Words enable us to categorise objects and experiences, as known, unknown, recognisable, unrecognisable, useful or irrelevant and, in doing so, language controls our consciousness by filtering our world through a verbal screen.

Once consciousness emerged with full blown verbal ability, the thinking mind was able to assert its dominance over the ancestral mind by engaging in an almost continuous internal mental monologue. Eastern traditions have often called this the monkey mind. The internal monologue not only makes us more conscious and more self conscious, but it also alters consciousness by dulling our perceptions of the external world. We can become so preoccupied with our thoughts that we do not even hear what is being said to us, see what is in front of us or hear what is around us. We have all but forgotten how to be in the moment.

The thinking mind encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals and to separate us from everything else, to observe the experience rather than participate in it. Perhaps in this process of establishing this subject - object distinction, we came to perceive things in terms of their utility and purpose in relation to us, our fears, our past and our future.

One of the unique abilities of the thinking mind is its ability to time travel, to move forward in time mentally and foresee events that have not yet occurred, and into the past. It has enabled us to anticipate and plan for our future needs by setting goals and learning from our past.

The cognitive time travel, however, comes at a price. Too frequently, we don't just plan for the future but come to live in it. From our earliest awareness we're taught to think and believe that what counts will happen later on in life, when you grow up, or when you have children, when you have your next holiday, when you get a promotion or when you retire. It's deferred living. We are trained that satisfaction will come at some time in the future; not to seek satisfaction in the present moment, but to strive and expect the happiness to unfold at some future date. So we spend too much of our time missing the moment by living in the future.

Our ability to project ourselves forward and into the past has also created new problems. Rather than facing the biological threats faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we include all the threats that tomorrow will bring, as well as yesterday's worries.

We all have a mental monologue going on in our heads that evaluates who we are and what we do. For many of us, this monologue is often negative, criticising our actions and generally running us down. We all know this monologue. It's the voice that tells us how poor or bad we are and that what we're doing is stupid or wrong. Or that we can't do that positive or challenging thing so stop fooling ourselves and others. It's particularly active when you are upset, annoyed or fatigued, or when something in life goes wrong. If you can't see it yet it is perhaps best recognised by the character Gollem, in Lord of the Rings in the scenes where he was talking to himself and it seems as if there were two of him. These are just multiple representations of his mind.

The thinking mind too easily spins out of control, creating exaggerated negative thoughts, pictures and scenarios. This was probably an evolutionary adaptation to help us avoid risks and keep us away from real physical dangers in our hunter-gatherer days. But now the negative thoughts create negative emotions, which activate the neural circulatory pattern of stress and negative moods. The stress, in turn, creates more negative emotions and the negative cycle is created.

The thinking mind's mental chatter shifts continuously from past to the future, from fears to phobias, running through endless dramas and histories. The mental monologue creates noise that distracts us and prevents us from just being. It focuses on difference between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and the environment. The mental dialogue creates tunnel vision, and triggers stress responses that can brew below the surface.

This monologue creates fears of the future, what could go wrong and why, and criticisms of the past, what you could or should have done but didn't, or exaggerates a negative outcome of the past. Our mental monologue not only uses the "should have" and "could have", but also becomes excessive and uses words like "never" and "always". It becomes catastrophic with words like "worst", "terrible", and "horrible". Over a period of time, a person can feel disempowered and quite devastated.

By contrast, worrying is about the concerns of the future. Worrying is exhausting without having done anything and, like guilt, it seems easier than changing.

Our images of ourselves often create a self fulfilling prophecy in which our behaviour conforms to our self image and our self image then reinforces our behaviour. Our attitude to ourselves, whether it is short term or long term, moves us towards creating a self fulfilling prophecy in which our behaviour confirms our self image. They become our truisms.

Research has shown that what people believe is their state of health is one of the major predictors of living longer. Participants who rated their own health, independent of a medical assessment, as being poor, were three times more likely to die in the ensuing seven years than those who rated their lives and their health as being well. Their belief system, or their perceptions, became their reality. When you believe you are healthy, you take actions and set up a self fulfilling process for the belief system.

We need to learn different methods of exerting control over our internal monologue. We can take charge of it and have it working for us, rather than against us. We are essentially responsible for creating our own experiences of the world and how we interpret things around us that, in turn, influence us and our thoughts and feelings. We need to separate out the cognitive junk, to rewrite the negative software and create new mind software and a new set of unconscious attitudes. Learn to manage our thoughts and our feelings and we learn to manage our lives.

One of the most effective ways of taking charge of your mental monologue is cognitive restructuring, in which the very first step is to identify that critical voice. Simply observe what it says. Identifying the negative voice and taking a step back from it enables us to take control. Cognitive restructuring enables us to identify and step back from the negative feelings, rather than getting caught up in them. If we recognise our own internal dialogue, we can then challenge it and change it.

To identify the negative mental monologue, listen for negative messages and words such as:

Could haveShould haveNeverWorstTerribleAlways

Other words include "can't do" and "why me?". Get the picture? They're all the negative words tumbling around in our heads that degrade us and tell us that we are useless, hopeless, no good and stupid.

The monologue also becomes Personal, Permanent and Pervasive. Personal means the problem becomes ours; we created it, not the outside circumstances - it was our fault. Permanent refers to the continual, negative ending downward spiral that we create in our minds after a single negative event and refers to words like "always" and "never". Pervasive means the problem is generalised to everything around us and becomes catastrophic.

Once the negative monologue is identified, set up a dialogue with a positive counter voice which deconstructs and counters the monologue, creating a more realistic and positive perspective. We can do this in our heads, but it's much more powerful to write it down. The best piece of paper is in a journal so that you can keep it all together.

Begin to question your thoughts and your words:

Question the accuracy and the evidence by using the questions below.

Is it logical?Is it true? This will determine if it is really happening and if it is a current state. Ask yourself if the thought is really, really true. If not, why not. List all the reasons it's not true and keep adding to the list.What would you say, and how would you treat a close friend in a similar situation? Get in touch with reality by asking yourself what you would say to your best friend if they undermined themselves the way your inner critic does to you. What would you say to them? Perhaps that's what you should be saying to yourself, rather than beating yourself around the head. So write it down. Become your own best friend.

What are the consequences of the negative thoughts? The continual catastrophising and increasing pervasiveness of the three Ps. Put it in perspective.

How will I perceive this problem or issue in the future, in a year or two's time? Will it be catastrophic or will it be insignificant?Has this happened in the past, or a similar situation? What was the outcome of that past experience? Was it so devastating and catastrophic? Did it really nearly kill you or destroy everything you had?How important is this actual situation really in my life? What is important in my life?What is really the worst thing that could happen in this situation?

Question the usefulness, create comparisons.

Is there anything that I can find positive in this situation?What are the alternatives?Why could have it have happened?

This simple technique has proven to be extraordinarily powerful in changing people's way of thinking and their lives. Once your inner dialogue and fears are written down, you can revisit and add to them at any time to remind yourself of the real situation, not the world your busy mind conjures up in an attempt to keep you subdued.

An important part of many forms of positive cognitive therapy is about putting our lives in perspective. We are richer and generally better off than any previous generation, yet we have more stress and mental problems than ever before. Whenever you want to put your life in perspective remember this little story set in a small village...

A man loved his wife but found it hard living with the in-laws so he went to the wise man of the village and told him his troubles. The wise man said, "Do you have chickens?" "Yes," replied the man. "Then bring these into your home," said the wise man. He did so, but it did not improve the problem, so he went back to the wise man and said the problem was no better. The wise man then asked him if he had dogs and, once again, he replied "Yes." "Then bring them into the house," said the wise man. So the man went away and did as he was instructed. But the problem did not improve so he went back to the wise man who then asked, "Do you have cows?" "Yes," said the man. "Well bring those into your home." So the man went away and brought the cows into his home. But the problem still did not improve. So a week or so later, frustrated and with a very full house, he went back to the wise man and said, "I now have my in-laws in the house, chickens all over the place, all the dogs and the cows - the situation is intolerable. Your suggestions have not improved my situation but rather made them worse. So what should I do now?" asked the man. To which the wise man replied, "Take all the chickens, dogs and cows and put them outside and come and see me in a week."
One week later, the man returned to the wise man who asked him how the situation was and he replied, "Much better thanks."

It's time to change your perspective and learn to appreciate everything you have. You are not the same person you were when you developed these patterns. Remember it is just your conditioning.

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