I was reminded this morning how easily and often we become attached to our thoughts. We can become attached to thoughts that tell us ‘I am right’ or ‘I am not good enough’ even thoughts that tell us ‘the world is too dangerous’.
But it’s good to remember that our thoughts are not necessarily the truth – they reflect everything from our conditioning to our culture. The way we talk to ourselves (our thoughts) are affected by a myriad of different triggers.
We human beings are incredible -we sift through billions of pieces of information at any given time and we manage to find a way to make sure we can do this without creating a complete melt down. Therein lies a trouble and a genius. Our brains contain a little switch called a Reticular Activating System and it can work for us or against us.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through. It’s the reason in a crowded room you can filter out the crowd but if your name is mentioned you’ll notice!
Your RAS acts as a filter – without you even knowing it, it takes what you focus on and creates a filter, sifting through data and bringing to your attention only the pieces it decides are important to you. The thing is, the RAS also seeks information to validate your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it.
Why is this so important?
Because caring for our mental health is important – and understanding why we think the way we do gives us the power to change.
When we unconsciously set those parameters to see the world as much harder or more dangerous than it is, it’s like we are running the wrong software and wondering why our lives aren’t working well.
Here’s an example. Philip came to me suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. He was convinced he would become the victim of a crime. His view of the world told him that it was a dangerous place, full of violence and crime and that he was unsafe even in his own home. Each time Philip watched the news or read a newspaper he would see more and more violent crime reports which validated his belief that the world was truly dangerous. The more he focused on these things, the more he saw.
One night after a long drive Philip returned home to a dark house, convinced that within his home there lurked a violent criminal wishing him harm. He found himself deeply afraid and his need to move room to room checking for an intruder was real and terrifying.
When I asked what Philip listened to / thought of during his journey home he told me of his fascination with psychology and in particular criminal psychology. Did he then listen to an audio book focused on psychology as he drove home? No. He listened, as was his habit, to a book about a serial killer and his crimes, believing this would give insight to the workings of the mind behind the actions. Was it any surprise then that Philips RAS took what Philip focused on and filtered the data he received, continually bringing to his attention the information important to him? His RAS was filtering the world through the parameters he gave it and validating his belief that the world was an overly dangerous place.
The suggestion that Philip follow his passion by listening to /reading articles on how the brain functions rather than violent crime and choose music as his background noise while driving brought about a speedy and dramatic change. His Reticular Activating system began to notice and place importance on more positive data.
By noticing (observing), rather than becoming attached to our thoughts and chasing them down the rabbit hole, we can choose to can shift direction. We can teach our RAS what is truly important to our happiness. Like turning right or left at the end of a road – when you the driving seat you can choose to pay attention to where you are driving and you can choose the road you want to take.