Avi came to therapy because he was miserable. Avi had marital issues, anxiety, and was always stressed out. In therapy, Avi learnt about himself as well as many tools to change the way he dealt with himself and his marriage.
Despite all that, Avi still felt unhappy. Avi still found himself thinking about all sorts of problems, real or imagined. Avi felt as if his default mode was to think and overthink about all sorts of issues. He felt helpless to stop his thoughts despite recognizing that it was the source of his misery.
Avi was correct, thinking about problems was his default mode. I heard a great משל to explain how this works as well as its solution from noted psychologist and author Sara Chana Radcliffe.
If you shop on Amazon you will notice that when you log in to your account there will be shopping recommendations. These are usually spot on! The recommendations are exactly the types of products that you like to buy. How does Amazon know what you like? Amazon has an algorithm that takes all your previous browsing and shopping history into account and makes suggestions based on that. Once you see a recommendation, you have 2 options. 1. Click on buy now. 2. Find a new item. If you click on buy now, you are strengthening that recommendation and you will see more of that type of item the next time you shop. If you ignore it and start shopping for new items, the algorithm will update your preferences and begin offering you new choices.
Our brain has the same algorithm. We believe that we don’t have a choice in what we think but that’s incorrect. Every thought that pops in your head is your brain’s algorithm suggesting a line of thought based on your previous thinking patterns. If your “shopping” history is full of negativity and problems, that’s the genre your brain thinks you want. If when your brain suggests a negative thought, you pounce on it and proceed to click on “buy now”, your brain registers your preference for negativity and will continue offering you plenty of negative material.
However, just like Amazon, you have a choice. You don’t need to click “buy now” when you have a thought. You can decline that thought and choose to to focus on something different. It’s important to understand that you can’t “get rid” of the negative thought. However, you can choose a different thought. If you force yourself to choose different, neutral or positive thoughts, with a little time, the brain’s algorithm will update and automatically begin suggesting positive thoughts for your consumption. The result is overall happiness, confidence, and reduced stress.
It’s important to note that this approach only works if you actually address the problems in your life. If your brain suggests a problem for you to think about, it needs to be addressed. The challenge that people struggle with is that they are thinking about their problems all day! It’s important to put a set time in your schedule to focus on your problems and work through them. If you don’t have that set time, your brain will rebel against your efforts to update the algorithm, because your brain wants to make sure you address the real issues. Thinking positively is not a substitute for dealing with the issues in your life.
To summarize, changing your algorithm requires the following: First, set aside time daily to deal with real issues. Second, when you notice yourself thinking negatively, recognize it as a suggestion from your brain, you don’t have to click “buy now”. Third, choose a different thought. If you are at work, force your mind onto your work. If your not doing something at the moment, find something positive to think about. If you can’t think of something positive, just repeat a positive word in your mind like “happy”. Although it seems silly, the goal of this is not just temporary relief, the real objective is updating the algorithm by choosing new “products”. In the beginning of this process, you will need to literally force your mind away from the negative thoughts, because you’re brain is so entrenched in that pattern. With a little time, the positivity will become natural and effortless, leading to a happier, healthier you!
Chaim Moshe Steinmetz, LISW
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