By Afshan Tafler
Have you ever been told to “look on the bright side” or to “just think positive and things will be ok”?
Or perhaps you have tried positive affirmations like: “I love myself, I believe in myself, I am grateful for…” only to find that they don’t stick and you don’t end up believing them much of the time?
We have all been taught that if we want to do better, feel better or manifest what we want, then we need to think positively first…So, it’s understandable why many of us would think this way.
But let me ask you this: Does thinking positively ALWAYS help you to do better or feel better? Does it work for you 100% of the time? No – it likely does not!
Oftentimes, we try to think positively but we just can’t seem to feel it, or, believe it….and our actions and behaviors don’t seem to follow. That’s because we have a body, a Nervous System, that, in many circumstances will override our positive thoughts.
And this is why positive thinking, alone, is not enough.
If you want positive thinking to actually work for you most of the time, then you need to work with your body first.
How story follows state
Many of us believe that if we think more positively, then we can change the state of how we feel. Maybe half the time it works, but the other half the time there is likely an inner tug of war between you trying to think positive but, your feeling state just won’t give in and let that positive thought take over.
This is because your mind and ability to have positive thoughts is largely influenced by your nervous system state. It is our nervous system states that actually dictate what thoughts we will believe and what actions and behaviors will happen as a result.
You see, the truth, from the latest neuroscience of the Polyvagal theory, is that our thoughts and stories actually follow from the nervous system state we are in.
Story follows state. Thoughts follow our physiological state.
What does this mean exactly?
This means that our ability to think positive thoughts, and have them hold, is actually dependent on what state our nervous system is in.
How the nervous system influences your thinking
It is important to deeply understand that we don’t actually have conscious control over what state our nervous system goes into. It is automatically reacting to cues in the environment, from others and what’s going on inside of us too; and, depending on these cues, it reacts and launches into a state of Fight, Flight or Freeze.
To understand this better, let’s briefly go over the 3 nervous system states:
- Ventral Vagal
This is known as the social engagement system and, in this state we feel safe, relaxed and we can socially connect with others.
This is the Fight or Flight state, and in this state, we are mobilized into a stress state and have stress chemicals surging through us, wanting us to take action to stop the stressor or run away from it.
- Dorsal Vagal
This is the Freeze state. In this state we feel immobilized, numb, shut down, and hopeless and helpless.
Well…it is only from the Ventral Vagal state of Safety that we can think positively, and have it hold. From the Fight or Flight state, the predominant story available to us is one of “blame” and “I need to do something to stop this issue in front of me.” From the Freeze state, the predominant story available is “I can’t”, and “I give up.”
It is from the Ventral Vagal state of Safety that our higher thinking brain is online, we are more conscious, and we can think clearly and have perspective. In this state, we can FEEL and EMBODY the positive thoughts, which means we are much more likely to then take positive action.
Why it’s about feeling safe first
So, what this means is it’s not actually about “thinking positive first”. It’s about helping our bodies, our nervous system, to feel safe enough first….and then the positive thinking easily follows.
Just think about how easy it is to think positive when you’re on vacation. You’re on a beautiful beach, you’re relaxed and calm…you don’t have any stressors! Your body feels safe and at ease, so you feel grateful, happy, and you can think positive thoughts so easily!
Now, think about how hard it is to be positive when you are feeling exhausted, or sick, or have a huge challenge or stressor in front of you. You feel tense and stressed. Your body does not feel safe, and it is so hard to think your way out of this stressor with positive thoughts. They just don’t stick! You just can’t believe those positive thoughts!
And that’s because story, or thoughts follow your state! And if your state doesn’t feel safe, calm and relaxed, then your brain is receiving too many cues that it’s not safe enough for those positive thoughts to take hold.
Thinking positively, in a way that leads to a positive shift in feeling state, is really about your nervous system feeling SAFE first.
Shifting beliefs about positive thinking
Now that you understand that story and thoughts follow the state your nervous system automatically goes into, it beckons the question of:
Would you rather use your energy to try so hard to think positively, only to find your whole system resisting it and not buying into it…Only to leave you feeling that something is wrong with you because you can’t seem to “think positively like everyone else” who seem to do it so effortlessly?
Would you rather be able to create positive thoughts that actually hold and stick…more effortlessly?
I would think the latter!
Well, the first thing to do is to replace the belief that “I need to think positive” with the belief that “I need to help my body feel safe and relaxed first!”
Your body, in a stress state, does not feel safe, and it’s not going to feel safe enough to create those positive thoughts, or believe those positive thoughts that you are trying so hard to believe.
You need to create safety in your body first. This is your doorway to effortless positive thinking. The type of positive thinking that actually sticks and is followed by the positive actions and behaviors you are looking for in yourself.
How to help your nervous system back to safety so you can think positively
So, HOW do you help your body – your nervous system – to feel safe and relaxed when stressed?
You have to give your nervous system ENOUGH cues of safety!
What are cues of safety?
Well that is unique to each individual and you need to explore in your daily life what cues you are noticing that bring you into a feeling state of safe, relaxed, calm and ease.
The research says that what helps most people feel safer and relaxed are images of nature. Being in nature is even better. But if you can’t get to nature, then take a look outside at a tree, or look at images or videos of nature on your computer or phone. Allow yourself to take it in fully and notice how your body shifts automatically from a stress state into the Ventral Vagal state of safe, calm and relaxed.
From here, see how easy it is to come up with a positive thought, and how easy it is to FEEL that positive thought AND take action from it.
For those that have nervous systems wired towards greater reactivity and more prone to negative thinking, the good news is you can rewire your nervous system. Daily practice of noticing and shifting your state helps immensely.
You can also use body based tools like Unyte’s iom2 meditation device, or iLS’s Safe & Sound Protocol, which can help your nervous system to rewire towards greater levels of safe and calm in the face of stress.
Creating positive thinking that sticks
The next time you find yourself feeling stressed, or negative…and you keep thinking “I should really think more positively about this”, instead, choose to help your body or nervous system to feel SAFE and RELAXED first. Then, once you feel that shift, you can more easily choose the positive thought or change the story.
This is your best path to positive thinking that actually sticks!
About Afshan Tafler
Afshan Tafler is a Conscious Parenting and holistic life coach who helps you discover your power to transform your emotional health so you can handle life’s challenges with resiliency, create more connected relationships, and live from your full life force energy. She helps parents with strong-willed and sensitive kids to thrive in their relationships.
You can learn more about Afshan and her services at www.illuminateu.ca