Train Tracks in the Mind: Reversing Negative Thinking With Mindfulness | Mindfulness Rewrites

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Train Tracks in the Mind: Reversing Negative Thinking With Mindfulness

     by Dr. Linda Miles 

Be a Mindful Brain Train Conductor

When you make mistakes, do you speak to yourself with harsh words and judgments? 

Do you feel anxious and jittery too much of the time? 

Do you dwell so much on past events that you have difficulty enjoying the present moment? 

Neuroscientists have a saying: “the brain loves fame.” Another saying, coined by neuroscientist Wayne Drevets, similarly states: “in the brain, practice makes permanent.”

In other words, the thoughts that are most "popular," or prevalent, are repeated.

The good news, particularly if you answered yes to any of the above questions, is that you can change your mindset and change your life. Happiness has a biological basis, and research shows that we can take steps toward creating a positive and healthy mental space, despite the stresses of living in a demanding existence.

Meet Lisa

Lisa is a young accountant and mom who worries excessively and often second-guesses her actions. Today, she spent more than three hours at her desk continuously going over in her mind the short-temperedness she showed her family before leaving for work, and feeling badly about herself as a result. Rather than acknowledge her early morning mistakes and plan to make amends, she dwelled on her actions in an all or nothing way.

Chances are, like most people, you can relate to Lisa's situation.

What is an All or Nothing Way?

Cognitive psychology teaches us that people who tend to get anxious or depressed think in all or nothing terms about themselves—that they are all good or all bad. As Lisa spent hours labeling herself as a "bad and inadequate mother,” she felt increasingly anxious. Lisa needs to become aware of her harmful usage of all or nothing labels and develop thought patterns of healthy guilt instead of toxic shame.

Healthy guilt acknowledges our mistakes and makes plans to move on by making amends and changing behavior. Toxic shame, on the other hand, makes us stuck in a rut of all or nothing labels. An all or nothing label is so fixed and absolute that flexible thoughts and solutions do not seem available.

Train Tracks in The Mind

Think of brain (neural) pathways like a series of train tracks. The more times a thought goes in a certain direction, the more that route is used. The routes that are not used stop running. We all have engrained, well-worn routes that no longer serve us well, yet we keep taking rides to hostile regions.

Once when I was visiting Connecticut in the winter, my dear friend Jack offered to help me get my luggage on the train. We left his car parked and running in the lot so it would stay warm while he boarded the train to help with my bags. In a flash, the train was out of the station and speeding away from his car. We did some quick problem solving and decided he would get off at the next station and get a ticket back in the direction of his car. Fortunately, he still had a car when he returned, complete with key and engine running.

It occurs to me that this is how the brain works—we store away wonderful, warm places in our brain filled with positive imagery and memories, and yet -- when we are not paying attention to the need to reroute -- we can take frequent rides in the wrong directions. The more “famous” that thoughts become, the more often the brain train will take off in that direction. We all do it.

Lisa, the self-judging mom, needs to notice her all or nothing thoughts with equanimity and curiosity, otherwise she will remain stuck in hostile territory. Fortunately, Lisa decided to take a walk before lunch, during which she realized her inner abuse and began to re-route to a station back in the direction of warmth, comfort, and self-compassion.


Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison states, “We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example and direction our intentions in those ways, we can influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial.”

Lisa's story is an example of taking steps to intentionally steer our brain toward healthy, positive stations -- solidifying and strengthening these connections for future use. This ability of the brain to intentionally train or restructure itself with practice is called neuroplasticity.

The Role of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a way to notice and reroute where you are headed in the wrong direction. Like Lisa, we should all practice hearing our negative self-talk and noticing the lack of self-compassion. 

Mindfulness begins with knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it, focusing on acceptance of what is.

Here are some things you can do when you find yourself feeling like Lisa did:

  • Repeat the phrase "judging, judging, judging" to acknowledge that your train is running in a negative direction.
  • Notice how you speak to yourself, and consider whether you would say this to a friend in the same situation.
  • Label your negative thoughts. Categorize them as "judgment," "fear," or "all or nothing," as they pass through your mind. Be aware of the tension these thoughts cause in your body. Then, redirect your attention back to the here and now.
  • Focus on your breathing. When breathing in, think, "be." When breathing out, think, "calm." Breathe in and out slowly and purposefully.
  • Repeat in your mind: 
    • May I be at peace
    • May I be healed
    • May I send out loving kindness to others

Biological Benefits

According to research being done at the University of Wisconsin, some of the benefits we can expect to detect in the brain from daily mindfulness practices include:

  • Reduction in the size of the amygdala, the brain’s alarm center and seat of fearful and anxious emotions. 
  • Increased size of the hippocampus, the region that deals with memory and learning.
  • Increased grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with self-regulation, attention, and flexibility of responses. 

These are actual structural changes to the brain!

Final Thoughts

Understand that you may have been programmed to engage in a negative way of thinking and, with this understanding, recognize that you have the choice to reroute. Many of us come to realize negativity has somehow become our "default" way of thinking, and we had been moving through life on autopilot.

Remember that your mind has been running in that direction for a long time, so be patient and gentle with yourself if you slip back into old thought patterns. It takes time and practice to build new routes, but isn't inner peace and happiness worth the effort?

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