You might have heard that if you want to change your life, health, and well-being, you must change your thoughts. This is true but rather deeply misunderstood. While changing our thoughts is a powerful way to change our perception, there are more complex mechanisms at play.
Much of modern psychology is built upon the belief that our thoughts dictate our reality which is partially true but what dictates our thoughts? The common answer to this question often involves our history, upbringing, mental health status, the quality of our relationships, lifestyle, and our current living conditions. Much of this logic is built upon our thought-driven perspective. We tend to believe that our thoughts are always the results of analytical processing; we receive and process a set of information, our brains engage in active analysis, and voila! A thought is born!
In reality, there are more factors at play than the simple "input + processing = thought" model. In fact, our conscious brains only process a small percentage of the incoming information, filtering through what it deems "unimportant" and often filling in details based on past experiences rather than an accurate and detailed analysis of the incoming information.
Another important detail to consider is that our pre-frontal cortex where our cognitive functions occur, as fast as it seems to us, is a slow processor of information in comparison to the more primitive parts of our brains like the limbic cortex which is tasked with threat assessment and survival.
Much of what we categorize as "negative thoughts" are indeed limbic brain responses to information it deems as a threat. Threat assessment is a complex process involving our beliefs, upbringing, and past experiences none of which are under conscious command. Our brains have an innate "Negative Bias" which means we hold on to negative memories far more often than positive ones as a basis for our survival. If we forgot past behaviors and experiences that put us in danger, we are likely to repeat them and threaten our longevity and survival.
While over time we can train our brains towards reinforcing and strengthening positive thoughts over negative ones, that process is not a cognitive one simply because our brain physiology is designed such that information is processed in our limbic brain before our cognitive brain. If we have any hope of intercepting the negative bias of our brains, we must rely on techniques that do not involve our cognitive processing power. This is precisely why somatic-based practices and techniques are far more effective in addressing our triggers, and traumas.
The PolyVagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges offers a simple and critical perspective to better understand how our autonomic nervous systems (ANS) function in response to a threat (real or perceived) and how we can train our nervous systems to recover from dysregulated states more quickly and stay in regulated states more readily.
The PolyVagal theory is best described in a ladder format first introduced by Dr. Deb Dana which outlines the different states of our ANS and the thoughts and attitudes associated with each state.
This model promotes the understanding that our thoughts and emotions are a response to the state of our ANS not the origin of these states.
For a deeper understanding of the PolyVagal ladder, see "What is the PolyVagal Theory?".
One of the main principles of the PolyVagal theory is "Neuroception". Neuroception defines how our nervous system decides whether a person or situation is safe, dangerous, or a major threat. Neuroception listens to 3 streams of information:
Inside (our bodies)
Outside (our environment)
Between (nervous systems)
Our nervous systems continuously scan our bodies, environment, and life forms around us to assess safety through sensory input, that information is then processed by our limbic brain for threat assessment without input from our cognitive brain.
If the information is deemed threatening, our ANS moves into either Sympathetic or Dorsal states which in turn dictate our thoughts and emotions. Because we are programmed to look for a cognitive reason to explain our dysregulated state, we often reach for "the lowest common denominator" aka our most present and prevalent negative thoughts, worries, and fears to explain why we feel the way we feel and close the loop on our brain's desperate attempt to categorize our experience to avoid the discomfort of the unknown.
PolyVagal-informed care promotes a refreshing and revolutionary approach to understanding our ANS and the source of our negative thoughts, and it offers simple body-based practices to move in between the different states of our ANS without identification with the thoughts and emotions inherent in each stage. It offers a liberating and embodied framework for supporting personal and inter-personal compassion, agility, and resilience.
In summary, to stop negative thoughts, we must learn to better navigate the different states of our ANS and nurture the practices, principles, and people who support and strengthen our connection to our naturally balanced Ventral Vagal State of safety, connection, and engagement.
Curious about PolyVagal-informed care and nervous system training? I offer private and group opportunities to deepen your understanding, regulating practices, and mastery over your nervous system responses. Book a free consult with me to learn more.