Couch yourself Positive

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Couch yourself Positive

True Story: Guy walks into a bar, chats up the hottest babe in the joint. He’s feeling hip and funny. She’s gazing dreamily into his eyes, obviously impressed. When she goes off to the bathroom, a buddy walks up to the guy. ‘Know who that is?’ the buddy asks. ‘She used to date Al Pacino.’ Gulp.

Somehow, when Miss Lovely reappears, our man isn’t so fast with the repartee. His confidence is gone; the conversation sputters. She’s no longer looking into his eyes. In fact, she seems to be looking for an escape route. He’s become another wannabe player shot down by negative self-talk.

We all talk to ourselves. It’s the way the mind works. And it’s terrific when it makes like your own personal cheerleader. Who doesn’t like hearing, Smart move… she liked that. Or, when you start a new job, / have great ideas. Positive self-talk bolsters confidence and boosts energy.

But sometimes our inner cheerleader changes sides. Instead of encouragement, you get zingers like, Pacino! Man, I’m so average. What’ll she think when she sees my ancient car? And my pathetic flat – not that we’ll get that far. What’s a guy to do? There’s no off button for your inner motor-mouth, and demoralizing thoughts can pop up anytime. But there are ways to keep your head out of dissing mode.

Bad thoughts are inevitably triggered by events, however minor. The boss looks your way – is he frowning? – and you think, I’m going to lose my job. Or your dinner date’s giggle reminds you of that leggy brunette who laughed so cruelly when you brought a bottle of cheap Chardonnay to her classy dinner party. Doofus! Instantly, you’re reliving a moment you’d rather forget.

But that’s just the beginning. Electrochemical activity in the brain’s frontal cortex, where thoughts are born, jump-starts the limbic system, a primitive brain region known as the seat of emotion. Specifically, thoughts that suggest something is wrong rev up the amygdala, an almond-shaped parcel of grey matter that functions like a panic button.

From there, circuits light up in the hypothalamus, which links the mind with the body. You start to sweat. Your pulse quickens. Now you’re really nervous. Upstairs, the frontal lobes are generating even more discouraging words. Soon a killer monologue is going on inside your skull, and it’s not the kind that knocks ‘em dead at the Laugh Factory. It’s the voice of doom – hypercritical and looking for anything to feel terrible about.

The mischief that bad thoughts can do is something athletes know better than anyone. ‘Negative self-talk hurts your self-confidence; and when confidence goes down, so does performance,’ says Dr Shane Murphy, the former head of the US Olympic Committee’s sports psychology program.

Self-doubt produces muscle tension, which screws up timing and coordination. And by torpedoing your mood, self-doubt makes it difficult to focus. You can’t concentrate on getting a maiden over when you’re thinking, Last time, this batter hit every ball I bowled for a six.

The same thing can happen in daily life. Thoughts like I have nothing interesting to say become self-fulfilling prophecies. Self-doubt shows in your facial expressions, tone of voice, and even in your posture. You become so focused on how you’re coming across that you can’t keep up with the conversation. Bye-bye playful banter; hello, strained silence.

At work negative self-talk has a similar effect. If you focus on how difficult a task is -   how you won’t do a good job – you’ll find it tougher to start. You’re likely to procrastinate, which will turn the task into a real ordeal.

If you’re giving a speech or typing a report, an inner critic that keeps jabbering, This sounds so lame, is all but guaranteed to tie your tongue and freeze your fingers at the keyboard.

Worst of all are the missteps that keep replaying like some sadistic tape loop. Maybe it’s the way you blew that great thing you had with Liz. Or that time you sneezed in your boss’s coffee.

This is a milder version of the intrusive thoughts that bedevil combat veterans and other trauma victims. Those thoughts come when the mind has no focus or directed attention. True, an office cubicle isn’t exactly a battlefield. Nor is a bar or your bedroom, But threats to your self-esteem uncounted in these everyday settings can rev up the amygdala just as effectively as a mortar attack will. So what are you going to do?

Here’s your battle plan:

Know the enemy

Zeroing in on your negative mind chatter isn’t easy, but with a little practice, you’ll be able to pick out the sentence fragments that constitute a sort of lingua franca between ‘you’ and your limbic system – brief phrases like ‘Blew it, as usual’, or names that are freighted with personal meaning: ‘Dad all over again.’ Sometimes it’s just images, like the face of your old friend or the school bully. You will see it coming from far.

Don’t ignore them, and respect their power

Don’t try to eliminate negative thoughts. The more you fight them, the more they come back. Instead of trying to suppress or eliminate negative thoughts, let them stay as background noise.

Argue with yourself

Identify the put-downs you typically say to yourself, and then jot down a rebuttal for each. Your goal isn’t to pump yourself up with false optimism; it’s simply to recast unrealistically negative thoughts in a more positive light. The rebuttal to ‘I sound like an idiot’ isn’t ‘I’m a smooth a talker as Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep’, but rather If I say something dumb, she’ll like me anyway.

Put on an act

Imagine yourself in a stressful situation, such as the big presentation you’re going to make next week at the AGM, first with the negative voice-over and then with the good stuff. Run mental rehearsals until it feels natural. Or simply act like everything’s copacetic and positive thoughts will follow.

Just putting a smile on your face reinforces the notion that all is well (while telling the other person (‘I’m glad you’re here’).

Slap another label on it

Another good way to reverse a downward spiral in your thinking is to give it a positive spin. If you re-label, ‘Uh, oh. I feel nervous’ as ‘I’m psyched’ your brain automatically shifts from take-cover mode into lets-roll mode. That helps re-channel a surfeit of adrenaline into positive action.

Sing some sense into yourself

Discouraging words that keep coming back call for a special strategy. It’s easier going towards these thoughts than going away. You can blunt the sting of endless self-reproach by putting it to music (in your mind please, we don’t want people thinking you are crazy). ‘I lost the only woman I’ve love, because I was a jerk’ sounds pretty silly once you sing it like 50 Cent.

Too nutty for you? Studies suggest you can ease negative self-talk simply by rapidly sweeping your eyes from side to side about 25 times. It stimulates both sides of the brain and briefly disrupts your thinking patterns. It makes it hard to hold onto a disturbing thought.

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