Controlling your thoughts — Is it possible?

Hi everyone and thanks for supporting and sharing. Welcome to our family of survivors. 

Throughout our blog, we will be sharing some of our innermost secrets about our past, things that we don’t just share with everyone, because quite frankly, we just don’t want to hear the judgmental tone in people’s voices, or the fake “oh, I’m so sorry” when they think you’re “broken”. Okay, not everyone is fake when you tell them about your past, but most people are so consumed by telling you about their life, that they just don’t really care to listen to how hurt you are. It’s okay.  You don’t need those people in your life. And the more you embrace your past, and learn to accept and move on, you will attract the people you really need in your life; those that are accepting, understanding, and who truly want to help you move past your past. If you don’t know how to quite do that, you are not alone. I spent the entire year of 2019 practicing how to say “no” and set boundaries. It takes time to remove negativity from your life, but it is possible. Hang in there! We’ll talk about it later 🙂 

Today, I want to touch on the age-old phrase, “just get over it, already” and what that actually means to someone who might suffer from anxiety. I am even guilty of doing this in the past, before I really understood what it means to someone who is in mental dysregulation. I never knew how difficult it was for someone who is dealing with anxiety to just get over it. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way when I said that to my husband early on in our relationship. He was very gracious, though. Instead of getting angry, he just understood that not everyone realizes how hard that statement stings. He kindly explained to me, the best way he could, how it felt to live with anxiety, and how you have to fully and consciously pull yourself out of this experience when your entire body feels like it’s going crazy, and will go so crazy that it shuts down and you’ll die. Fortunately, we are built to survive these threats to our body because our brain automatically responds to stressors to keep us alive in these situations. I will also get into the neurobiology of trauma throughout our time together, but for now I will just touch on one part, your thoughts. 

So the question is, can you control your thoughts? Well, not really. Our brains have many, many thoughts throughout the day, some conscious thoughts and so many that are subconscious. Some researchers believe it to be in the tens of thousands (but it has never been fully researched, or at least this research is nowhere that I can find. I’ve heard anywhere on the low end from 20,000 to the high end of 80,000. Either way, it’s still a lot of thoughts! One thing I can find research on is that we subconsciously think about many things, and this is because our brain does this automatically so our body functions properly. But there are some thoughts from our subconscious that seep through to our conscious thought. These are the thoughts we can’t control, and it’s these thoughts that can throw people with mental illness into a spiral that might feel never-ending and for some, make them feel like they might die from it. The good news? Although you can’t always control what happens inside your brain, you can control your reaction to these thoughts with some practice. Unfortunately, for those of us with not-so-great childhoods, it’s probably safe to say, we were never taught exactly how to control what we react to. This is a learned skill, and we are never too old to learn this… the key is to want to learn and continue to practice it forever. This is the book I read about 15 years ago. If you can find 15 minutes a night, read it. There are so many great examples of why changing the way you react to your thoughts/emotions can save your life. 

We are designed to survive and our brains especially, are incredible. But, because of our given abilities to protect ourselves (fight, flight, freeze) when faced with perceived danger (even uncontrolled thoughts), we lose the ability to quickly regulate ourselves. I’ll go over this in more detail when we talk about the brain, but quickly, there are parts of the brain that contribute to our stress response. Let’s start here.

We have a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. These are both a part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls all of our involuntary functions like breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, etc… The part of our brain that communicates with our ANS is our hypothalamus, or our command center. Our senses (sight, sound, etc…) provide warning signals to the amygdala, and when this part of the brain perceives danger, these warning signals go directly to our command center (hypothalamus), which communicates to our body we need to react, and this is when our sympathetic system is activated. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, this all happens automatically and pretty much instantly. When our sympathetic system is activated, physiologically we experience symptoms like heart rate increasing, increased sweating, pupils dilating, our adrenal glands release adrenaline, and our bladder relaxes. We lose the ability to rationalize or think clearly and our emotions take control. So, when you tell someone to get over it, they literally can’t right away. When someone has an outburst of anger, or struggles with anxious thoughts and has an anxiety or panic attack, it is very difficult to control what happens with your body because your brain is reacting to this perceived danger. It takes time, mindfulness, and practice to become regulated after these events happen. These individuals have to convince themselves that their perceived threat is actually no longer a threat. It’s hard. But it is possible. Again, people who deal with anxiety and other disorders who can’t control their emotions, deal with this so much. And for those who don’t get the help they need, they are forced to just deal with this feeling for prolonged periods of time. This prolonged exposure can actually have serious mental and physical side effects. We will talk about the effects of trauma on the body and mind in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about one of the best ways to control your emotions if your uncontrollable thoughts cause disturbances in your brain and body. 

1. Breathe – Breathing is the easiest way to regulate our body and return us back to a parasympathetic state. Unlike the sympathetic state that I mentioned earlier, the parasympathetic is where our heart rate decreases, we have healthy digestion, and our bladder will contract again. Here’s a great video by Dr. Andrew Weil M.D. describing the 4-7-8-method. 

2.  Practice Mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness is all about being present in the moment and focusing on what is going on right now, not what will possibly happen in the future. This helps people with anxiety and high stress. Here’s a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation video that you can listen to and practice with, even while you’re sitting at your desk or in the car, just try to focus on this rather than trying to multi-task.

3. Go for a walk – Although high-intensity exercise can actually activate your sympathetic system, studies show that light exercise like walking can improve the parasympathetic system and have a more calming effect. 

4.  Practice Yoga – There have been a lot of people to preach yoga to me. There are so many health benefits to yoga, not just the meditation and breathing side of it. 

5. Use Guided Imagery – Guided imagery is pretty cool, especially for super creative people. You can literally create whatever world you want in which you are surrounded by beautiful things that calm you. Guided imagery is hard to do when you’re in a dysregulated state, but this is something you can make part of your morning or evening meditation. Not sure where to start? Click here for more info.

There are a ton or ways to regulate the body when it becomes dysregulated, these are just the easiest and quickest methods of regulating yourself and reducing stress in your life. If you find yourself unable to regulate yourself or are spiraling into anxiety or stress very frequently, please ask for help. It’s okay to talk to a therapist. Constant therapy can help you discover methods that work for YOU. Each person is different and although there are many studies that say “this is what happens to most”, no study has 100% perfect results where every single person reacts a certain way. There will always be outliers, so it’s always best to do what’s right for you and your own situation. Stay happy, and remember you are not your trauma.

**Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I do extensive research on the subjects that we talk about because I am becoming a mental health professional with the intention of helping trauma survivors learn to cope throughout their life. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, or are currently in treatment, please see your doctor for medical advice.**