We’re literally thinking all day long, around 60,000 thoughts a day. But where do they come from and why are they so important to understand?
When boiled down, thoughts are language-based structures used to categorize everything in life.
Thoughts are the blueprint for understanding your experiences. Thoughts tell you what to believe. They tell you how to act. Thoughts remind you to consider what’s important.
Thoughts can also be the single most destructive part of your life if you don’t fully understand how to leverage them.
How Are Thoughts Formed?
When you were learning how to talk, you associated certain words with items or tasks. Through repetition, you built an understanding of the world around you. Some of these associations were presented to you by others and some come from your own hodge-podge of personal experiences.
As you built a deeper understanding of language, thoughts became the way you communicated with yourself. Thoughts went from being a way to understand the present moment to calculating the probability for your actions and creating fuel (emotions) to drive those actions.
The Recall Process Is Like A Bankrupt Movie Franchise.
Your brain is good at organizing information. So good that anytime you experience something, your thoughts and feelings are cataloged under the appropriate genre.
It's easier if you think about this recall process like a Blockbuster store in the early '90s.
Your mind is the General Manager, just trying to get through the day without any problems. And your body (sensory nervous system) is a part-time college student named Chuck.
Chuck's just trying to make a few bucks and see some free movies (aka doesn't give a shit about the organization & just wants to feel good).
You have all your New Experiences on the front wall, for easy recall, and most up-to-date information. Down the middle aisles, you have your Childhood, Past Traumas, Nostalgic Memories, and "That One Time" stories.
Cravings & urges are located in front of the store next to the cash wrap for easy impulsive access.
Somewhere down the line, ol' Chuck decides to put the Past Trauma DVD in New Experiences because they "feel the same kinda scary". Then he might decide to put a Nostalgic Memory next to "That One Time" because he says the covers look the same.
All of a sudden, you're thinking about the time you watched The Little Mermaid while your parents were fighting and how it doesn't matter if you finish this blog post now because who cares..?
Why Are Thoughts Important?
So obviously, the (massive) problem with letting your brain organize this way, without guidance, is that our bodies tend to hijack the process by fusing sensations to thoughts that aren’t reliable examples of our experiences.
This is especially true when it comes to the anxious mind.
If you’re someone who experiences anxiety, you probably tend to feel bad about your experiences. You also probably believe you need to control the parameters of your experiences or else you’re in danger (of feeling anxious or having a panic attack).
If you experience this process of thinking, chances are, you can’t sufficiently rely on your brain’s recall system because somewhere along the language learning process, your wires got crossed and the Big Fun Vacation DVD was replaced with Saw IV.
Instead of relying on the default process of organizing your thoughts/emotions, a more productive way to think is to look at whether a thought is anabolic or catabolic.
What Are Anabolic & Catabolic Thoughts?
If you remember anything from high school chemistry, you remember that anabolism is a metabolic process of creating molecules and conversely, catabolism breaks down the molecules.
The same thing can be seen with your thoughts.
Anabolic thoughts are thoughts that build you up and help you believe in yourself. Anabolic thoughts feel light & buzzy. They help us feel connected, energized, and empowered. They connect us to our sense of purpose and meaning.
Catabolic thoughts, on the other hand, are thoughts that feel dense and heavy. They weigh us down and push us away from growth. Catabolic thoughts tell us to overcalculate danger and run away from possibility. Catabolic thoughts keep us isolated, unhealthy and disconnected from what matters.
Here are a few examples of reframing catabolic to anabolic thoughts.
Catabolic Thought vs. Anabolic Thought
"I can’t even leave my house without feeling anxious." vs. "My desire to connect with my friends is more important than not feeling anxious."
"My life is out of control." vs. "My life will be what I make it and I choose to make it count."
"I’ll have a panic attack if I do that." vs. "I might feel some anxiety and that’s ok because I can handle my emotions."
How you interpret your experience depends on your thoughts. If your thoughts are catabolic in nature, your perception will be to tear down what is being presented.
If your thoughts are anabolic, you’ll more easily be able to pick up on opportunities for change and empathy. You’ll be able to see life (and yourself) from connection and growth.
Recognizing anabolic and catabolic thoughts will help you understand your frame of mind so you can disconnect from unhelpful thinking and behaviors.
Knowing the difference can provide context when things don't feel good, allowing you to pause and choose which lens you want to be looking through.
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