Why? They stimulate pleasure and learning centers of the brain similar to addictive substances.
Toxic thinking is characteristically compulsive in nature and causes intense fear-based feelings, which can overwhelm or zap our body’s energy supply. It consists of thoughts that habitually forecast disaster, perpetuate worry, instill doubt, obsess on perfection, describe self (or another) as a victim, or point fingers at others.
So, how can these pain feelings stimulate pleasure?
Though toxic thoughts paint images of self and others with colors of lack, gloom or failure, subconsciously, they are protective strategies that get activated automatically in our defense when something triggers us. Thus, our body associates them with pseudo “feel good” feelings that lower our anxiety, albeit in ineffective, quick-fix ways.
In recent decades, neuroscience research has increased our understanding of the processes that lead to the formation of healthy and unhealthy habits, to include addictions.
Pleasure – and fear – as stimulants and “teachers”?
We now have a better understanding of how intoxicating highs stimulate the “reward” centers of the brain, and the role mixed emotions of — pleasure and fear — play in stimulating these centers to establish an addiction, addictive relating patterns, or emotional reactivity in general.
- The high is produced by neurochemicals that induce pleasure, dopamine in particular.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger of the brain that plays a major role in forming addictions, and habits in general, healthy or otherwise. It transmits “teaching” signals to the reward centers of the brain responsible for acquiring new habits.
- The other, less known, catalyst that stimulates the reward centers for the release of hormones is: fear.
Whether related to risk taking, taboo or past trauma, fear is a chief chemical-stimulant that works together with pleasure to enhance and intensify the highs in the brain’s reward centers. In fact, the brain is in its most alert state of receptivity to learning in the presence of danger.
This makes sense, considering that survival is the primary directive of the part of the mind, the subconscious, that runs the body and is in charge of all the processes involved in forming or breaking habits.
- Thus, fear not only reinforces learning, it also increases the chances that a particular memory will receive preferential attention from the subconscious mind.
This means the subconscious mind will record the “experience” in a special place in memory, an “intelligence report” of sorts, which the subconscious mind turns to whenever we get triggered or feel threatened in some way.
(The use of “fear” to condition behaviors also explains why commercial and political advertisements use fear to condition us to behave in certain ways.)
Toxic thinking patterns act as “drugs of choice”?
Certain thinking patterns, in particular ones that subconsciously activate the body’s fear response, or “fight or flee” system, are powerful.
They activate powerful inner processes that produce dynamic physiological changes in the body. They prepare us to run away or confront a perceived threat. When fear is the basis for behaviors, it is connected to the part of the brain that is responsible for ensuring survival — the fight or flight stress response.
- They are automatic.
They cause the subconscious mind to automatically perform an instant coup d’état of the body’s normal processes. Unfortunately, this disengages the higher thinking processes of the brain by cutting off much of the oxygen flow.
- They are limiting in varying degrees.
And herein lies the problem. The brain is always in either “protective mode” or “learning mode.” When it’s in “protective mode,” its otherwise amazing capacity to make informed choices, decisions is not fully functioning. It is no longer in “learning mode.”
- They are toxic-thinking patterns.
The subconscious mind has a seemingly limitless capacity for memory and multitasking, processing millions, and some say billions, of bits of information per second. It does no original thinking, however. It relies on our thoughts (and associated beliefs, feelings) to form the “perceptions” it uses to determine whether or not to activate the body’s fear response.
- They are not “real” thoughts.
Our thoughts or “self-talk” are an inner running commentary, a stream of about 60,000 thoughts a day. A good portion of this habituated thinking consists of rigid, black-and-white thoughts — in other words, toxic thinking patterns — such as blame, fault-finding, self-pity, etc. These negatively charged thoughts are not real thinking at all. They are habituated thoughts that emerge from limiting beliefs, many of which are subconscious and carry over from the formative years of childhood. Examples of limiting beliefs are:
If I say no, I will be rejected or abandoned.
If someone says no to my request, it means they don’t love or appreciate me.
It’s wrong to put “demands” or need something from others.
It’s not love if you have to ask; he/she should know what I want/need.
Anger means you are not loved, accepted by or adequate enough to another.
Psychological or physical violence is OK when it is “deserved.”
- They are based on beliefs that were imprinted in our memory the formative years of early childhood early survival-love maps.
Where do these thoughts come from? Beliefs.
In this case, certain core beliefs that form our self-concept, for example, what it means to love and be loved, what it means to “matter” or feel value in life, in relation to our self and others. They are thoughts that the subconscious accrues in a special record it keeps of all past “scary” moments. These pockets of memory contain related data, such as feelings, images, beliefs, and so on. I refer to these records in cellular memory as our early survival-love maps.
Many of them spawn unhelpful and limiting views of anger, whereas anger is designed to be a healthy emotion that moves us to action to stand up for our selves and not give up on our dreams – once, that is, we accept and respect its value, and learn how to express it assertively – rather than defensively. Some examples of limiting beliefs that produce toxic thoughts about anger include:
Never be angry.
Never talk about your anger.
Men can be angry, women cannot.
Anger leads to abuse and pain.
Anger means you are not loved.
If you make him/her angry, they will abandon you.
- They offer quick-fix “pseudo” relief that lowers anxiety and restores body’s equilibrium in varying degrees.
The instant relief we get by activating our protective strategies, such as blasting someone with our anger or stewing on how we “always” get the short end of the stick, is what makes toxic-thinking addictive. They are old and “comfortable” ways of protecting ourselves, that is, by lowering our anxiety with instant pseudo “feel good” toxic thoughts.
- The subconscious does no original thinking.
Our subconscious mind is completely dependent on the conscious mind to wisely discern between “feel goods” that are healthful and those that are harmful. By design, it has no capacity to do its own thinking.
Whenever something “works” to lower anxiety and restore our body to natural state, the subconscious mind automatically puts it on the “list of things that work to ensure survival.” Hence, “things” that neuro-chemically produce pseudo “feel-good” feelings in our body.
- The subconscious cannot discern between what is toxic or healthful.
The subconscious mind cannot discern between what “feels good” that is toxic or even destructive, such as junk food or drugs or toxic thoughts, and what “feels bad” yet is healthful, such as learning a new subject or giving a speech or changing a toxic thinking pattern or two.
With repeated stimulation, old reward centers form new neuropathways that demand more of the same, thus, producing more intense cravings. As the body habituates to the highs that repeated stimulation produces, other processes that seek to restore equilibrium then form new neuropathways, which demand greater intensity and frequency to achieve the same stimulation.
An addiction is formed, and along with it, a wide array of emotional, physical and mental health costs.
Genuine versus “pseudo” feel-goods?
This combination of stimulating emotions of pleasure and fear literally conditions our brain to live life at odds with self, a life of contradictory desires and passions that, if not stopped, has power to control and take away what is of lasting and real value to a person’s life.
It’s safe to say that what distinguishes “genuine” feel-goods from “pseudo” feel-goods is that the former, in contrast to the latter, seeks to delight us yet also enhance our health, growth, transformation, or at minimum, cause no harm.
Toxic thinking patterns and pseudo feel-goods block change and healing. Like addiction, toxic “feel good” thinking patterns are an escape, a series of actions that fail in their attempt to help you to get control over your life, and that lead instead to abandoning control to lies, falsehoods and acts of desperation.
At root all addiction is a fear of intimacy, in particular, an intimate knowing of self.
It is a topsy-turvy system of beliefs that imprisons the mind with lies that lead us to avoid, run away from, block, or “protect” ourselves against what we most need and yearn for in life: To feel alive in meaningful connection to self and life around us, to contribute the love we aspire to express, courageously, with our whole heart.
Speaking of thinking patterns, Carl Jung, one of the most brilliant thinkers in the modern era, was first among other theorists and psychologists to point out that the human mind, or psyche, continuously strives toward a feeling state of wholeness, in search of meaning and purpose. In contrast to pseudo feel-goods, genuine “feel goods” work alongside the directives of the body to ensure that you both survive, and thrive in health and wholeness.
The solution is simple, and though not easy, it’s achievable with determination: You are wired for a life time of learning, healing and change.
More on how to re-wire changes in Part 2.
Begley, Sharon (2007). Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. NY: Ballantine Books.
Cozolino, Louis (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Brain. NY: W. W. Norton.
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.
Siegel, Daniel J. (1999). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. NY: Guilford Press.