I used to incessantly beat myself up for my inability to “think positive” and talk myself out of my anxiety and depression.
No matter how much I told myself that the world wasn’t ending and that I should just relax, I couldn’t.
And I didn’t understand why.
I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger, so why wouldn’t the dread in my stomach and the racing thoughts go away?
Everyone else was able to enjoy themselves, so why couldn’t I?
Now I know why and I want to make sure you do too, so that you don’t end up banging your head against the wall for as long as I did.
If you want a really detailed scientific explanation, I highly recommend Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise And The Brain by John Ratey, MD.
But if you don’t feel like reading a whole book right now, I’m going to attempt a simplified explanation.
The Real Reason Why You Can’t Just “Think Positive”
So there’s a little part of your brain called the amygdala that’s responsible for your survival instincts, emotions, and memory. Its’ job is to detect potential emergencies and to activate your body’s stress response system to keep you safe.
Now, the amygdala is SO eager to protect you that it makes super fast calls, leaving no time to consult the other parts of your brain that are actually capable of reasoning.
In other words, the amygdala doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your positive thoughts if it has deemed that there is an emergency of some sort. And by the way, especially for those of us on the sensitive side, the emergency doesn’t have to be the 911 kind. It could just be someone’s irritated tone of voice or the anticipation of not making tomorrow’s deadline.
So whether it’s due to a gunman entering your house at night or your co-worker being mean to you, whenever the amygdala takes charge, it makes sure all your mental and physical resources are directed toward immediate survival. The point is to survive the threat and ignore everything else.
Non-essential bodily systems, like digestion and reproduction, are put on hold. Your mental resources are hyper-focused on the threat, with your brain blocking out unrelated memories and having a hard time learning anything new.
And THIS is why that need to obsess is so irresistible and why you can’t “just think about something else”!
Now, in the ideal case scenario, you either deal with the threat or your brain registers a false alarm and realizes that there wasn’t a threat after all and you quickly return to a calm state. And there are even tricks you can learn that help your brain get there faster – like nose-belly breathing, and yes, summoning the rationalizing parts of your brain for some positive thoughts.
Unfortunately though, we don’t live in an ideal world so stressful situations don’t always get resolved. And sometimes there are a whole bunch of stressors for your amygdala to get fired up over so frequently that there isn’t much calm time in between.
And this is where we get to the kicker, guys.
The more your amygdala gets used, the stronger it gets. To the point where it can become the master of your brain that just stays in charge all the time or most of the time. You are left stuck in a state of non-stop heightened alert, making it pretty near impossible for you to “just think positive and relax”.
This is exactly what happened to me. My amygdala was put to frequent use starting in early childhood and it got so much exercise that it was in pretty much constant control by the time I made it to my twenties.
And by that point my feeble attempts to “think positive” and “talk myself out of it” were pretty much pointless.
But you know what? Eventually I did find a way to tame my amygdala. It’s still probably more trigger-happy than the average person’s amygdala, but it’s not ruling my brain all the time anymore and when it gets fired up, I can usually reason with it.
So how did I get there?
Well, I got there by learning how to bring my stress levels waaaaay down. And sure, positive thinking didn’t hurt during that process, but it took a lot more action than that. Boundaries, self care, coping skills…
For more details, check out my Conquer Your Anxiety eBook Bundle if you haven’t yet.
But the major point I want to make with this post is this: If positive thinking isn’t cutting it for you, please don’t blame yourself! It’s not that you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s that your body’s survival mechanism is powerful and when it goes on overdrive it sometimes takes a lot more than just thoughts to bring it back down.