Automatic Negativity and how to influence it

- Louise Mercieca

Negative into Positive - dice spelling 'negative' are on a table.  The first few letters are being turned to spell 'positive' instead.

 

There’s always a lot in the media about mental health, the last year has certainly seen an increase in the need to talk about this but how much do we understand about how our thoughts impact on stress, and whether we view situations from a positive or negative viewpoint? Indeed, whether we are positive or negative can deeply impact on both our physical and mental health but how can we control our thoughts and steer them to be more positive? 

Thoughts pop up in our head almost constantly, sometimes they are welcome, often necessary and certainly also when you don’t want them to (e.g. daydreaming when someone is talking to you) etc but can we control them or do they control us? There’s a belief called the ‘Cognitive Triad’ (Beck’s Cognitive Triad) used to investigate depression and negative thoughts.  The theory behind this is that thoughts trigger emotions and feelings which in turn lead to actions and behaviours.  The principle of this theory being that our thoughts are in charge!  

When it comes to my area of specialism, (nutrition), it is easy to see how this thought process can lead to unhealthy eating patterns such as emotional/stress/comfort eating and an unstable relationship with food. 

The other interesting element is the process of ‘automatic thoughts’ leading to subconscious actions, research shows that 95% of our daily food decisions are habitual, what we have programmed our thoughts and actions to do rather than following conscious food decisions.  This could explain how we can sometimes eat something without tasting or noticing it, or eat more than we realise (reaching for another biscuit in the packet to find we have eaten them all!).  Our thoughts are driving our actions but, the big issue here is, who is in control, Us or our thoughts? 

Let’s look at something we all have from time to time – Automatic Negative Thoughts.  There’s no doubt we all have experienced these at some time, here’s some examples: - 

I can’t cope with this 

I’m going to mess this up 

“This won’t work for me 

During a global pandemic it is likely and entirely natural that we will all have experienced higher than average ANT’s as we are faced with an incredibly stressful time and challenging circumstances.  What compounds this issue is the constant flow of information we are viewing.  In any situation our brain is pre-programmed to see the very worst outcome, this is a primal defence mechanism to help us to see a way out of a dangerous situation. This may be helpful when it is to devise a plan to escape from a wild animal but it is not helpful in a situation that is out of our control. With a continual flow of information (news, social media etc) we have a constant worst-case scenario playing out in our minds. Whilst our mind is envisaging the frightening situation(s) it is very hard to switch into a positive mindset, it is also increasingly difficult to concentrate, focus and function through every-day life.   We may be faced with a set of ANT’s that sound like this. 

“I’m going to get it, I’m bound to” 

“Things are terrible for good now, that’s it! 

“What’s the point? Everything’s ruined now” 

“It will never go away” 

 As the current situation is very likely to go on for some weeks and months to come, this heightened state of anxiety will begin to take a significant toll on your physical and mental health.  The longer ANT’s are present the more they take root and just like the insect variety, where there is one ANT, another will soon join it, and another, and another and another.  When these ANT’s have taken root in your thought processes, they become habitual and it’s as if your default thought pattern has been set to ‘negative’.  This can start to create cognitive distortions, where the ANT isn’t just in relation to a specific scenario but takes root in a wider sense; exaggerated and irritational thoughts without factual basis such as assumptions or by making negative predictions for the future (e.g.“it will never go away”).  

It will be of little surprise I’m sure that these ANT’s have a detrimental impact on your overall mental and physical health, increasing anxiety, stress, depression, sleep disturbances, immunity issues and much more.  So, how do we shift the ANT’s are they set in stone? Can the default thought pattern be set to ‘positive’? 

Yes, is the answer! Positive thinking, optimism and happiness are all linked with improved overall wellbeing and just as the ANT’s take root so can PAT’s (Positive Action Thoughts).  In the same way as the ANT’s build one negative thought after the other, so can PAT’s but just like with happiness, positivity has to come from within. In order for you to alter your thought process you need to be aware of your personal values so you can apply those to any given situation, you also need to recognise a negative thought for what it is and use implementation techniques (such as use of language).  Let’s look at a nutritional example. 

 

Here’s some examples of ANTs and PAT’s in relation to nutrition choices. 

 

Situation

ANT

PAT

I ate all the cake”

 

I am such a failure, no wonder I can never lose any weight, I just can’t say no to cake, I have had a really bad day but now I feel even worse”

“I really enjoyed the cake, it was delicious. I felt I neededitbut I appreciate it was to fill a void that cake can’t fill so I am going to be kind to myself and take a walk/have a bath/read a book and not feel guilty about the cake as it’s done now”

“I need to lose weight”

I’ve tried diets before they don’t work for me,I’ll have to be really strict this time, no ‘treats’ I don’t deserve them I can’t be trusted and even then, it’ll probably not work”

“I’ve tried diets before and they made me really miserable, plus I didn’t lose weight so I am going to try a different approach, moving more, beingmore healthyin general andbeing a bit less strict so I don’t want what I can’t have”

“I’ve been told to increase my exercise”

I can’t exercise, I hate exercise, everyone will laugh at me plus I have bad knees and I get out of breath so I can’t do that at all, how am I meant to? They shouldn’t tell me to”

“I’ve never liked exercise but I don’t have to go to a gym, I quite like walking soI‘m going to try that plus I found some chair based yoga that will help my knees”

 

To re-train our neural pathways is easier said than done in terms of making the switch from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ as once the thoughts flow in one direction they gain momentum, we can control whether they gain positive or negative momentum. 

 

As ever with nutrition there is a biological influence.  Whilst our subconscious may be driving our food decisions it may also be keeping us in the negative thought pattern.  You can help retrain the positive thoughts by eating more of the foods that increase the naturally positive emotions and in turn these will increase your neural pathways of natural positive thoughts linked with food choices. 

How to make cheerful neurotransmitters 

Eating foods that contain Tryptophan – here’s a few examples
Fish, Chicken Eggs, Turkey, Tofu, Beans, Oats, Milk, Cheese, Banana, Spinach, Chickpeas Quinoa, Potatoes, Rice.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin – this enhances mood
Eating foods that contain the amino acid Tyrosine – here’s a few examples

Fish, Pork, Chicken, Soybenas, nuts, seeds, eggs, wholegrains, 
Tyrosine helps to make the neurotransmitter; Dopamine which is linked with pleasure and reward

Eating enough Essential Fatty Acids, particularly Omega 3 helps improve neurotransmitter reception in your brain. Include foods such as;
Fish, Avocado, Olives, Nuts, Seeds

Looking after the health of your gut microbiome is also crucial as up to 95% of serotonin production is created in your gut.

On the flip side, foods we tend to crave when we are in a negative thought pattern tend to keep us in the negative thought pattern, take sugar for example.  This does drive up dopamine as sugar activates the pleasure and reward centre of the brain, but unlike with the amino acid examples above, the body increases demand for sugar and supresses the pleasure response, meaning you need to keep eating more and more to get a ‘hit’ or ‘high’. 

We are indeed, living through a particularly stressful period in time. This will increase ANT’s but within each of us we are capable of re-steering our thought process to be framed more positively, whilst this isn’t easy and will take time it is worth persevering as the more positive thoughts you have, the more that will join them and the more natural and automatic the positive thoughts will flow.

 

Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; https://www.earlyyearsfood.tv/ She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here; https://www.cachealumni.org.uk/article/the-impact-of-food-louise-mercieca/