Improving your health isn't just about taking supplements, working out and eating cleaner. Healthy habits come from paying close attention to the thoughts that flood your mind on a daily basis and replacing the negative one with more productive ones.
I cannot count how many times my own thought patterns have held me back from seizing potentially worthwhile opportunities, especially networking opportunities. I have also found that my thought patterns sometimes put me in compromising situations (i.e. texting when it could wait, not paying attention to important information). It wasn’t until I tossed aside my headphones during triathlon training that I began to understand the power these self-defeating and catastrophic thoughts had over what I believed to be my own capabilities and limitations.
In tandem with triathlon training, I dived deeper into my mindfulness practice. And the deeper I dived into my mindfulness practice, the more I started to become aware of these interfering thoughts. I began to actively mask these types of thoughts—especially when engaging in physical exercise. Going out for a long run or a long bike ride proved to be much easier when I didn’t have to constantly get into a battle with my mind. Previously, however, on those days when I would accidentally forget my headphones, my mind and I would engage in conversations, including: justifying that I worked out enough for the day mid-training, convincing myself that my body couldn’t go any harder, bickering about how long my workout should actually be, thinking about what else I had to do later that day, and so on. Sound familiar? Once I recognized this, I began my mission to end my dependence on music to help me cover up my negative thought patterns and positive feedback loops.
When I first came across a theoretical model called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), it resonated with me a great deal because of how straightforward and measurable it is. The father of CBT, Aaron Beck, first started writing about this model in the 1960s and it has been regarded as a highly effective form of therapy to treat depression specifically, but it also proved efficacious in other areas of mental illness. CBT follows an A-B-C model, stating that A does not cause C. B, in fact, tends to cause C. A being the situation or event, B being the thought or reaction to A, and C being the feeling or behavior that results from B. CBT works on what the individual can control, or B (the thought or reaction), as opposed to focusing on A (circumstances we don’t have total control over–or “life”) to increase the chances that C (the result) will be a favorable feeling or behavior. Therefore, CBT focuses on people’s emotional and behavioral reactions and how those reactions affect our understanding of the world. Being aware of and working on these recurring reactions or thought patterns allows people to break free of negative views they may have of the world, oftentimes with the realization that these views are not representative of reality. This is done, partly, by acknowledging the thoughts and carefully inspecting them for evidence that they are in fact true, inquiring how those views could potentially be reframed, and gauging mood levels through the process.
Of course the CBT model is much more complex than this brief description, and you can refer to the links below if you’d like to read more on this topic. But, for the purposes of this article, it is simply important to know that CBT catalyzed my endeavor to incorporate “hacking” my own thought patterns in a structured and measurable manner. I went about this activity because I assessed that I was comfortable and stable enough with my emotions and coping skills to attempt to further optimize my mind. Just like people attempt to hack their weight with diet, my goal was to hack my mind by logging information about myself and analyzing what is and isn’t beneficial to keep in my mental feedback loops. The term feedback loop, in this context, refers to the habits I exhibit when presented with certain stimuli in my environment. Breaking these feedback loops and replacing old habits with new and healthier habits ultimately creates new feedback loops that situate with repetitiveness and persistence.
I decided to challenge myself to log my most significantly frustrating thought patterns every day for 30 days. I used pre-made charts, the “Notes” app on my iPhone, and an Excel spreadsheet I created myself to make the logging process as easy and intuitive as possible. The chart is based off of Dr. David Burn’s (Aaron Beck’s sidekick) book Feel Good: The New Mood Therapy. You can learn more about Dr. Burns and his book by checking out his TedTalk.
The columns of this spreadsheet read:
Under the situation column, I wrote down where I was (work, home, etc), what I was doing (working, relaxing, eating, etc.), and whether my thoughts were sparked from a memory, an image, a stream of thoughts, a daydream, etc. Beneath emotion, I recorded how I was feeling and I rated the intensity of that feeling from 0-100 — 0 being least intense and 100 being most intense. In the automatic thought column, I wrote down the thought that first came to mind, as embarrassing or offensive as that may have been. Remember, this is a personal log, so no one else had to see it. Then I rated that automatic thought from 0-100 — 0 meaning I don’t believe it at all and 100 meaning I absolutely believe my automatic thought. Next, under rational response, I basically examined the evidence that convinced me to believe this automatic thought. Last, for outcome, I revisited and re-rated my automatic thought and I also re-rated my emotion I originally logged as a reaction to that automatic thought.
Time consuming? Absolutely. But so are other things we do to keep healthy–like preparing every meal for the week to get the correct amounts of protein, carbs, vitamins, etc. Or planning your exercise routine week by week, while also taking into account improvements and areas of weakness. Or making sure you plan your day so you get your well deserved sleep every night. Self growth doesn’t come easy, and it certainly isn’t done quickly. This challenge took a substantial amount of mental energy. I chose to do this for 30 days because I have found that 30 days is the amount of time it takes me to form a new behavior. There is research out there stating that the magical number to form a new habit is 66 days, but, of course, it also concludes that it depends on the individual person.
To cut back on time consumption, not all negative thought patterns made it into my log. If a thought came up and I was able to reframe it with ease and it didn’t sit with me, it generally didn’t make it into the log. If I had attempted to write down every passing thought pattern, I probably would have cleared half of the Amazon rainforests and maxed out my hard drives.
The first week of this challenge was rough. I started to realize how often I experienced moments when my thoughts would lead me towards a “creature comfort” like my phone, even in potentially unsafe situations. A good example of my day one struggle with this exercise took place during my daily commute to my office. My commute usually takes about 14 minutes driving. On day one of my challenge, it took me 25 minutes because I pulled over three times to fill out my thought log. My thoughts were compelling me to check my email before arriving at work for a slew of arbitrary reasons. I don’t have children, but I imagine my day one experience was like pulling the car over to safely tell your kid to stop throwing things at you in the car while you’re driving. Even before I arrived at my office, I was already exhausted from this thought logging challenge.
As the week carried on, I found myself logging thought patterns that were mainly focused on productivity and, on certain days, lack of motivation. Another automatic thought pattern I found difficult to let go of throughout the course of this exercise was checking my Instagram and Email (all four accounts) as soon as I would finish taking my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) for five minutes each morning. So, in my spreadsheet, the situation was laying in bed just after waking up, after reaching for my HRV monitor that I keep close. Theemotion was an unsettling yet mild anxiety that would provoke the thought that there may be something pending on my accounts that needed to be tended to “immediately.” The rational response came from replacing any words in my thoughts that had little to no validity:“can’t,” “shouldn’t,” “never,” “need.” In the above example, “need” was the first thing to go.
Overall, I began to reframe the aforementioned thought as follows:
“Can’t”: I haven’t learned how to yet.
“Shouldn’t”: It may not be in my best interest at the moment.
“Never”: The resulting action is not something I believe would benefit me best at the moment.
“Need”: This may benefit me at the moment (with the rare exception of considering true survival)
Another word I was able to reframe was “immediately.” After giving my automatic thought patterns some analysis, I was actually paying attention to what I was saying and why what I was saying didn’t always make complete sense. We begin to believe inaccurate words are true when we allow ourselves to use and reuse them repeatedly. The beauty of this particular exercise is that there isn’t one best response to our thoughts. I could have responded with “There may or may not be something pending on my accounts that I plan to tend to after I feel content with my morning routine” or “There may or may not be something pending on my accounts that I may have to get to at a later time because these accounts are not on my list of priorities at the moment.” As long as the resulting re-frame is true and positive, the thought connected to the initial emotion is bound to improve, resulting in a more desirable action. After basically dissecting these automatic thoughts and rebuilding them to elicit truth, I then started to believe these new positive automatic thoughts, and this began to forge new habits. And so, I finally convinced my habitual self that replying to emails as early as 7 or 8 in the morning would not prove to be any more beneficial than if I allotted a certain hour in my day to do so. However, the habit of checking email and social media first thing in the morning still lasted through most of the 30-day exercise. It was harder to shake than a more serious behavior that presents imminent danger, like texting and driving, for example. But as I started to experience some success in changing this habit, I was able to wake up much more gradually without instant stimulation to distract me from the present moment. I found myself waking up earlier and beginning to construct a healthy morning routine that now consisted of HRV monitoring, a 5-minute compassion meditation, a full glass of filtered water, my morning supplements (article to come!), a simple vinyasa flow or reading a book chapter, and a healthy breakfast.
Aside from email and social media, another trend became obvious in my thought log: food. During the time I engaged in this challenge, I simultaneously mapped out my nourishment plan for a separate self-experiment I was planning alongside a few cutting-edge health and wellness companies to bring all my biomarkers to optimal range. I said goodbye to processed grains, dairy, and sugar. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Thought logging taught me a great deal about how to listen to my body and whether it was telling me I was truly hungry or it was just looking for a distraction by way of nourishment. True hunger comes gradually as opposed to serving as an impulsive distraction. I’m no stranger to sticking to a strict nourishment plan, but that doesn’t mean that I am exempt from the less-healthy temptations that many people report when attempting to eat healthier.
When I was driving to the local REI store, just starting to ease into my new nourishment plan, I happened to drive past an Italian restaurant with very delicious, yet extremely unhealthy, chicken rolls. These things used to release intense amounts of dopamine in me, and just like that, the cravings came back. Prepared, I had a bag of almonds and a bottle of water in the car as a snack — but those two weren’t going to give me all the dopamine a chicken roll would! So I brought out the thought log and laid out the situation. Then I assessed that the impending emotion, if I were to give into the chicken roll, would be guilt. The rational response for me, as nerdy as it may sound, is that a chicken roll, due to its processed grain, sweetened dairy, sweetened sauce, and processed and fried chicken (and who knows what else?), is going to make dopamine deluge all over my brain. If I were to act on this desire, I would be counteracting my wellbeing (nourishment plan), which was planned when I was more clear-minded than I was while salivating over this chicken roll. The positive outcome, or response, of not engaging in this automatic thought is that I would be able to experience a more substantial level of satisfaction and accomplishment from being able to control impulsive desires that, if continuously acted upon, would be a detriment to my overall health.
Examining the evidence of my thoughts allowed me to slow my thought patterns down and control them, not allow them to control me. If this resonates with your daily life, understand that our minds are evolutionarily programmed to function in this manner. All of these thought patterns essentially revolve around what makes us feel comfortable and safe, even if our prefrontal cortex (which deals with reason and logic) knows that it is not. When you experience self-growth, some of your old habits just won’t be conducive to your new perspectives on life. You will benefit highly from letting them go. You may have believed they were beneficial in the past, but your life is elsewhere now. To think that there is no need to periodically check-in with yourself and assess your habits means you have stopped growing. To quote Benjamin Franklin (because he may be one of my favorite people to quote), “Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.”
This is an exercise that nearly any person can learn. It’s surprising that communication skills and emotional intelligence aren’t taught in most schools across the country. Being that most people who didn’t grow up with a strong foundation of emotional intelligence and sense of attunement with their own thoughts are at this disadvantage, it’s easy to understand why it can be so difficult and frustrating for someone in their 20s or 30s to learn these skills. You’re essentially dissecting your own language and learning how to reframe that same language in a new and more positive way.
For me, I would say noticeable change began to happen around week 3. I was logging less because I had less to log. Many thought patterns were falling under the category of “I was able to conquer that on my own” and I was learning how to go through those five columns with more ease, reaching a resolution with my mind before feeling as if I needed to reach for my log.
Now, a few key factors worth noting. I am a psychotherapist, or a marriage and family therapist to be exact. I have extensive training with these kinds of interventions, and I’ve been supervised by psychologists and other psychotherapists with years of experience on the subject matter. I also have a solid foundation in regards to a mindfulness meditation practice, which helps a great deal. When it comes down to it, though, our brains are meant to keep us safe, yet sometimes reason and logic have a difficult time overcoming what your brain is already sensitized to. When inspecting your own thought patterns under a microscope like I did, you realize that it doesn’t matter what the content of the thought pattern is. What matters is the process that your brain goes through to ultimately reach a goal.
Going back to the example of my triathlon training, the more I trained without music, the more I was forced to confront and reconfigure my mind’s process for dealing with my thoughts. As I inspected the evidence, reframed my thoughts, and proved my thought patterns wrong, I was able to push myself harder and longer, reap noticeable benefits, and, ultimately, complete an Ironman 70.3. Plus, they don’t let you wear headphones on race day, so it worked out quite well.
Disclaimer: The information included in this article is strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to be used as a form of treatment for any mental illness or disorder, or any other health-related concerns. TheHumanBluPrint presents information that is accrued through self-experimentation, and it is intended for entertainment and/or educational use only. If you are experiencing any medical or mental illness concerns, consult with your primary care physician.
Further reading on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: