If you take a look inside a person’s brain, you will find that thoughts and knowledge exist as 100 billion nerve cells connected in neural pathways. You can visualize this as a lot of twisted, tiny spaghetti noodles.
When you think a thought, you strengthen the neural pathway this thought follows. This is how we learn. If you think a thought many times, or if you practice something – such as when you learn to ride a bicycle – it becomes automatic. You do not need to think about how to operate your body while on your bicycle – you simply cycle.
Looking inside the brain of a person struggling with depression or anxiety, you will find a lot of activity within those neural pathways connected to negative thoughts and fear. They experience self-reinforcing reaction chains. It begins with an impulse resulting in depression or anxiety: For example when a depressed woman experiences rejection from another person, which in turn results in her inner voice tearing her down, or when a man suffering from social anxiety enters a party full of strangers.
This in turn sends signals to the body’s myriad of chemical factories (nerve cells, various organs and glands) triggering the production of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with painful feelings. Sadness, sorrow, hopelessness, fear, anxiety and so on.
This is why focusing on your anxiety and depression is a bad idea if you want to get rid of them (with the exception of exposure therapy, which is effective against many anxieties and phobias). It is a bad idea because focusing on the disorder will often strengthen it.
So what can you do then if you want to get rid of your suffering?
You focus on the opposite.
You direct your attention towards what you want – and away from that which you do not want. This can be difficult in the beginning, but don’t give up: In time you will become better and better at focusing your attention on the positive. It is the beginning that is the most difficult, as over time you will automate the positive neural pathways. I know this because I have experienced this transformation myself. As there is nothing special about me – this is possible for everybody!
The genius of this is that positive thoughts and feelings are connected together in self-reinforcing mechanisms, in the same way as negative thoughts. Positive thoughts lead directly to the production of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with positive feelings, such as endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin. With these chemicals swimming in the body it will become easier to continue thinking positive thoughts. The neural pathways that are associated with positive elements in life will become more active. This effect becomes stronger and stronger the more you use it.
Here is what you do: Take out your journal/notebook or smartphone and start a list over things that you like, love, appreciate; things, activities and people who produce good feelings. Maybe you think that such things are entirely absent in your life, but this is depression lying to you. It is impossible to go through life without occasionally seeing something beautiful, feeling the love of others, appreciating a good meal etc. So continue with this list, build it up each day. Become a detective in your own life – locate and identify things, people and activities that produce good feelings inside of you.
One tip to succeed with this is to make it a habit to turn negative things into positive things. Whenever you find yourself focusing on the things you detest, dislike, fear, hate etc., ask yourself: But what do I want? Write down your answer.
Next, gradually shift your focus from the negative to the positive. While you do this, express thankfulness for everything good in your life. You can use a gratitude journal for this. Make it a habit to say an inner (or outer) ‘THANKS!’ each time something happens you are thankful for. This can be anything from small to large. Everything from a sunny day to a hug from someone you appreciate.
Visualize, and believe, that your life will gradually go from being filled with anxiety and depression, to being filled with meaning and happiness. If you do this each day, over time, I can guarantee that things will get much better. Don’t give up – continue until it really works, even if it takes years!
I wish you good luck with this project – it is really all you need in order to build a better life.