One of the basic tenets of wellness culture is that we create our own reality and that stressful thoughts or negative thoughts draw negativity to us.
On the one hand, creating your own reality sounds empowering, because it means your reality is in your hands. Also, if things are going well, you can tell yourself good things about yourself.
But I found that for my clients—and for me too, before I learned the nuances—that when they are upset or stressed, thinking they create their own reality makes stress worse.
If they create their own reality, and right now that reality is sucking, then they are to blame.
Furthermore, it is a kind of magical thinking that denies the systemic and structural, real-world (not 5th dimension, quantum reality) barriers many people–especially those living in oppressed and racialized bodies–face.
Like so many issues that come up in the wellness industry and in the arena of spirituality and enlightenment (like toxic positivity, positive thinking, resilience and mindset, to name only a few), this idea is both true and not true.
It is definitely not true that we draw abusers to us with our “bad energy” or “negative vibes.”
It is not true that any adversity we experience is the result of bad energy or negativity.
And let’s get this straight:
You can’t just “create your own reality” and be free from the impact of living in a world where sexism, racism, fat phobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, injustice, oppression and capitalism run rampant.
When the idea that we create our own realities is used this way, we beat ourselves up with it, we gaslight ourselves about the uncontrollable and harmful aspects of the reality in which we live, and we add to stress instead of relieving it.
Negative, stressful thoughts aren’t your fault. It’s a trauma response.
As a trained and experienced trauma therapist who has also experienced sexual, emotional, spiritual, psychological and financial abuse and violence, I am here to tell you that abuse is the result of systems of oppression, and is perpetuated by those systems and by individuals who act in alignment with those systems.
This has an impact. It creates changes in your brain, your thinking patterns, your beliefs (about yourself and the world), your outlook, and in all aspects of health—physical, mental, spiritual and more. It’s a direct cause of your negative, stressful thoughts.
These changes are trauma adaptations that served the purpose, at that time, of helping us survive. When we haven’t taken the opportunity to look at them, they persist, even when they may no longer serve us.
And, and, and…
In my recovery journey, I learned that how I think about what happens—what happened to
me then, and what happens to me now–can have a profound impact (positive or negative) on my stress levels, my mental wellbeing and my ability to deal effectively with the adversities of life.
The connection between thoughts & emotions
“The basic idea behind the ABC model is that “external events do not cause emotions but [rather that] beliefs and, in particular, irrational beliefs do [cause emotions]” (Sarracino et al., 2017).
Another way to think about it is that “our emotions and behaviours are not directly determined by life events, but rather by the way these events are cognitively processed and evaluated” (Oltean et al., 2017).”
Here is a breakdown of how this might work.
You see a business-owner friend at a networking event, but they didn’t stay long and left early without speaking to you.
You think they might be mad at you. You start to stress out about your reputation in the small community where you both own businesses.
You start to worry about what you might have done wrong, and whether or not your business can survive if this person were to turn against you.
It’s possible your friend didn’t get to chat with you for any number of reasons.
If you had known, for example, that they left early because one of their kids got injured in a soccer game, you’d be more likely to feel concerned for your friend and their child, instead of stress.
Same scenario, two different realities
In one scenario, you are alone and under threat by your stressful thoughts. In the other, you are connected and responsive.
I invite you to pause here and notice your reactions.
What do you notice about your reaction to worrying thoughts?
What do you notice about your reaction to the concerned thoughts?
This is an example of how our thoughts determine our reality—our experiential reality.
How you evaluate the situation determines your stress and emotions
How you evaluate the situation, and as a result, how you think about it, determines your stress response, and can cause stressful thoughts.
In the first scenario, the thoughts trigger a threat response, leading to an intense emotional reaction that can interfere with your ability to address the situation and solve problems.
If you have experienced a lot of adversity, you are likely to default very quickly to the worst-case scenario.
It is also likely that you have the tendency to see even neutral things as negative.
It makes sense, based on what you’ve been through. This way you’re prepared.
Better to be safe than sorry!
And, since you’re in business for yourself and on a healing path, it can help to remember that this is not that, and that was then and this is now.
Therefore, maybe it can be an opportunity to look at your thoughts and see if they still serve you.
Maybe looking at them, and possibly changing them, can help reduce your stress and enable you to cope better than you have in the past.
Keeping your cool—or more accurately regaining it—helps you come up with beneficial strategies.
4 Steps to overcome stressful thoughts
It’s important to recognize how you’re feeling. The first step is to name the emotion.
This allows your CEO-self (the pre-frontal cortex) to come back online, so you can access your decision-making and problem-solving skills.
- I’m uneasy that she didn’t talk to me.
- I’m worried about what might be going on.
- I’m concerned she’s mad at me.
- I’m anxious about the potential consequences.
Beating yourself up for how you feel just makes things worse.
Remember how it felt the last time you were feeling crappy and said to yourself, “What’s the matter with you. Why are you so upset? Get it together! This isn’t a big deal.”
Feels pretty yucky, right?
Validation, the second step, calms the emotions even more.
You can say something to yourself like:
- It’s OK that I feel [emotion]. I’m remembering other times when this happened and it didn’t end well. It makes sense that I would feel this way.
- It’s OK that I’m feeling uneasy. Who wouldn’t feel weird when a friend suddenly doesn’t talk to you? It makes sense that I would be feeling worried. We’re good friends. She talks to me all the time. It’s unusual that she didn’t this time.
Identify what was said or done. Narrate the facts of what happened. What would an audio or video recording have captured?
- She didn’t say hi to me or speak to me.
- She didn’t acknowledge me.
- She left before the event ended.
- She spoke to other people at the event.
Differentiate between the facts you identified above from what you are thinking about the facts.
To do this, label your thoughts as thoughts, or as things you are telling yourself.
- I’m thinking she’s mad at me.
- I’m telling myself she is talking shit about me.
- I’m thinking if she spreads rumours, that will affect my business.
Additional steps to help overcome stressful thoughts
“I don’t know.”
It also helps to foster openness around your thoughts.
You can do this with the practice of “I don’t know.”
- She might be mad at me or she might not. I just don’t know.
- She might be talking shit and spreading rumours, or she might not. I just don’t know.
The practice of “I don’t know,” is not a way to invalidate your thoughts but to hold them as neutral possibilities rather than facts.In the Yogic tradition, we are taught that the mind is a sense organ, just like the other 5 sense organs, and thoughts are sense-data, just like smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight.
Sometimes it can help to hold thoughts lightly when you think of them as sense-data.
What’s different now?
Notice what’s different now in your mind and body.
- I still feel uneasy because I just don’t know what’s going on, but I’m not freaking out.
- I feel calmer. My breath is slower and deeper.
- My thoughts aren’t racing anymore.
- I can focus on what the person in front of me is saying and have a conversation with them.
Identify any actions needed and make a plan to take them. It’s not always the case that action is needed, but here is one example.
- I’m going to text her to connect.
- I’m going to ask for more information about what was going on for her so I can understand better.
- I’m going to talk this over with someone I trust.
In this example, the first two action step options demonstrate care and cultivate a connection with the other person. Connection helps calm the nervous system.
It also gives you information, which addresses the stress-inducing uncertainty in the situation.
This way you learn what’s going on, and, if appropriate, can offer to help, which also fosters relationships. You end up connected and feeling good instead of panicky.
This is a simple example.
Sometimes you can come up against situations in business thatare much more challenging.
But the steps are the same and can be used in any situation where you are having stressful thoughts.
Would you like some support to turn off negative thoughts? Learn more about working with me here.