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How to Quiet the Noise of Negative Thoughts

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“Noise” is my way of describing the constant stream of negative thoughts or defeating distractions that plague many people. Before anything else can be accomplished, it is essential that you be able to constructively filter your thoughts, so that you can discern and shut down disruptive mental static. I’ve put this rule first because noise does far more harm than just making you grumpy. It is the most persistent obstacle to your goals.

I can immediately pinpoint people who will struggle to make changes based on the noise they carry around in their heads. Some of my clients have so much dialogue going on in their heads during training sessions that when I tell them the next exercise, they look at me but it doesn’t register. I ask them what I just said, and they have no idea. The chatter in their heads is at such a high volume that nothing else can get through. Noise can also play out in the person I like to call the Jokester. This is the client who always needs to make jokes or tries too hard to be liked. A jokester constantly babbles and tries to distract me to avoid doing exercises.

Automatic mind messages—the stream of self-­talk you have in your head—can be positive or negative, but research indicates that we humans tilt toward pessimism. According to the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at the University of Southern California, we have up to 70,000 thoughts per day. Consider what that would mean if just 10 percent of our thinking was negative? That would still leave 7,000 negative thoughts a day. That’s nearly 300 gloomy thoughts per hour.

This pessimistic trait may be a leftover from our ancestors. They had to be vigilant about scanning their world for threats, so having the brain constantly on alert for saber-toothed tigers made sense. Today it limits thinking. Your brain has blinders on when you are negative (higher-order areas of the brain shut down to let the instinctual fight­-or-­flight areas take over), so your ability to think actually narrows, which means you have difficulty seeing the best strategy and are easily frustrated.

People who let mental or verbal chatter overwhelm them tend to struggle more with poor health and obesity because stinking thinking blocks their ability to change behavior. In the research arena, this is called the nocebo effect, which happens when you describe negative side effects of a medication but then give the person a placebo (sugar pill). In one study, described in a recent Harvard University article, people who thought they were getting chemotherapy but were really getting saltwater lost their hair and felt nauseous! The lesson? What you believe matters. In a study from the University of Pittsburgh, researchers found that pessimistic thinking led to increased hostility, worse health, and a shorter life compared to optimistic thinking.

Shut Down Physical Noise, Too

Noise can play out in physical ways, too. When I first started working with Adrienne, she couldn’t stop playing with her hair. She’d pause several times during our sessions to mess with her locks, so I told her she needed to wear a headband, and we made a deal. If I caught her playing with her hair, she’d have to do thirty extra Towel Runs.* Now she has laser focus during her training session, and it’s rare for Adrienne to think about her hair while exercising.

*If you want to try Towel Runs, it’s the best exercise when you don’t have a lot of time because it uses every muscle in your body. Grab a big towel and come into upper push-up position on a smooth floor, with hands under shoulders and elbows slightly bent. Position your feet wide on either side of the towel, then bring your feet together, scrunching the towel between your feet. Slide your right foot up (on the towel) as you bend your right knee up toward your chest, then slide it back. Switch sides. Continue alternating legs for 50 repetitions. Keep your abs active and resist allowing your back to arch. Work up to four sets.

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