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The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns (2 of 2)

It’s quite amazing when you think of it. You and your body are wired to work together to spark neurochemical changes in your brain in the direction of your highest good and happiness. Certain learned neural patterns of thinking, however, interfere with these natural impulses.

Toxic thinking is a protective strategy that unnecessarily activates the body’s survival response. Though well-meaning, essentially, it’s an ineffective way of dealing with painful feelings, such as not feeling “good enough,” deserving enough” or “having enough” in relation to others, all of which are a natural part of dealing with life or relationship issues, and other stress situations.

Based on recent decades of neuroscience findings, it appears, to the extent you become a conscious participant in these processes, you can more effectively direct the changes and parts of you involved in change. In other words, your success in changing any interfering behavior or thought patterns depends on … conscious you.

[The problem here is … that most of us have been conditioned, by cultural beliefs, mores, myths and traditions, among other things, to “think” in ways that make us seriously mistrust, disdain or look down our noses at our “emotion self” (body self, body-mind etc.). This means our “wounded-ego self” instead of a “conscious self” in charge of our otherwise amazing capabilities (personal power) for imagination, reflective thinking, choice-making — and when our wounded-ego self is in charge, depending on what triggers us, we’re walking around avoiding or shunning the messages our bodies send us about our moment by moment experiences in varying degrees. We’ve misinterpret our body’s signals because we look at our emotions or others through the eyes of fear.]

As suggested in Part 1, your brain and body are a complex communication network, and what influences change is a flow of information from a combination of sources, both conscious and subconscious, hard- and soft-wired.

  • Information that is soft-wired has been learned, and thus can be unlearned or changed. Your thoughts and beliefs fall in this category; you have learned them, either consciously or subconsciously, from the time you were first exposed to language.
  • In contrast, information that is hard-wired consists of unalterable laws that govern the operation and life of your body, such as inborn drives to survive (physical and psychologicalself) and thrive (self in meaningful connection).

This means you can change your soft-wiring (thoughts, beliefs, etc), however, any change must necessarily occur within a framework of unchangeable laws that govern how your brain adapts to change and certain aspects of your nature as a human being.

You can change soft- but not hard-wired data.

You can change information about you that is soft-wired, such as old thoughts and beliefs and behaviors, however, you cannot change your hard-wiring. For example:

  • You cannot change that your body needs oxygen, food and water to survive.
  • You cannot change that you also have an emotionalpsychological (spiritual?) drive to survive, i.e., to experience your self as a unique source of thought, choices, creative expression, value, contribution, and so on.
  • You cannot change that you are driven to meaningfully contribute in life and connect with life around you.

You can, however, change your thoughts and the standards or beliefs that form your thoughts.

Your standards are set by your habitual thoughts. Your thoughts reflect your beliefs. Your actions are the best indicators of what you want and believe.

This principle applies in every area of your life.

Your thoughts reflect your beliefs. They are your own unique responses to the events or persons in your life.

Your choices reflect your thoughts. Your thoughts, by the level of chemical “feel-good” feelings they produce, communicate what you want to your subconscious, and your emotional responses communicate what you really, really want.

Your actions are the best indicators of your thoughts, wants and beliefs. For example:

  • If you do not have the relationship you want with your partner, it may be that you are focusing too much on their faults, how unfairly they treat you, or some negative aspect of the relationship.
    • This focus, at least is part is helpful. Life is a top-notch school and one of the critical lessons we all must learn (to be happy, wise, fulfilled etc.) is to treat one another with the dignity we yearn for in return. The feedback we give or receive from others is painful, however, all growth emotional, mental and physical alike follows the principle of “no pain, no gain” or “use it, or lose it.”
    • The basic message you want your partner to understand is likely useful to them in some way, thus, the feedback itself is more often not the problem. The problem is in how it is delivered and received, for example:
      • It may be that the delivery may be less than effective. If you’re triggered when you deliver your feedback, for example, you’re more likely to use guilt-, fear- or shame-inducing comments, which in turn are likely trigger your partner. When one or both of you are triggered, your brains are in “protective” rather than “learning” mode, and thus blocking communication with an array of tactics.
      • It may also be the case that, even though you’re not triggered when you deliver your feedback, your partner gets triggered the instant any sign of negativity. Chances are that, when your partner gets triggered and you don’t receive the response you needed or expected i.e., understanding, you’re likely to get triggered automatically as well; thus again, both of you are in triggered modes — and your brains are automatically blocking any messages from coming in or going out.
      • It’s safe to say that a big contributor to any ineffective ways partners deliver or receive feedback stems from the limiting belief system they hold, such as: “If he/she loves me, they should know what upsets me/what I need.”  Limiting beliefs are associated with toxic thinking patterns, such as: “Love should not be work; I work 10 hour days and expect to have no demands on me at home.”
      • It is also the case that, over time, when an issue is not resolved, our brains begin to associate “feel-bad” feelings with certain discussions or issues, or worse, their partner. Delivery and receiving of feedback is automatic as if following a script. Both “know” and tell themselves they’re not going to get the results they want, i.e., “Trying to talk to him/her never works” or “I knew he/she couldn’t do this without getting angry.” In time, partners may put aside certain topics, or avoid situations, events, and so on, in order to avoid the feel-bad feelings.
  • If you don’t have the body you want, it may be that you strong feelings, i.e., fear or hatred, against some aspect of the processes or actions that would give you the body you want. For example, are you telling yourself that healthy foods are “boring,” or that you “love” certain junk foods and couldn’t possibly live without them, or that you “dread” exercise or “hate” going to the gym. Your body’s mind is listening 24/7, and like a genie fulfills your every wish as if it were a command!

This thinking, and the emotional states it spawns, is guaranteed to keep you from reaching your goals. It’s not because you are “sabotaging” yourself or goals, though it may feel that way. In truth, it’s because your thinking is not aligned with your goals. This means the goals of your conscious and subconscious mind are not in sync, which explains why you may not feel you have control of the direction of your life.

You are always in the process of becoming what you are most thinking because … your thoughts shape your actions.

In a sense, you become what you do. What makes this good news is that it means you are in control of your emotions, actions and life more than you can imagine (in present moments). Your subconscious goes by what you really, really want, and fires and wires the neurons in your brain accordingly.

The problem is that certain choices, which you need to be consciously making, are being controlled by your subconscious.

You are hard-wired to seek feel-goods; avoid feel-bads.

The directives that govern processes that automatically stimulate physical or emotional feel-good or feel-bad feelings in your body are also unchangeable. They are connected to releases of hormones in the bloodstream that produce comfortable or painful feelings accordingly. For example:

  • You cannot control the directive that tells your subconscious to automatically turn away from what causes feelings of discomfort or pain, and simultaneously turn toward what causes comfortable or feel-good feelings.
  • You cannot change that some foods and substances automatically stimulate your senses with feel-good feelings, can be addictive in nature, spawn cravings, and provide only temporary feel-goods.
  • You cannot change that your brain’s ability to “habituate” (in combination with other functions, such as survival) allows you to get “accustomed” or adapt to even the most painful or harmful behaviors and activities.

One of those activities is toxic thinking. These automatic thinking patterns train the brain to reach for feel-goods for the sake of feel-goods, even when they overall make you (or others) feel bad! As with other addictive or compulsive patterns, this trains your brain to seek the kind of feel-goods that are quick and easy, even though they are pseudo feel-goods.

An addiction, you may say, is state of the mind and body in which the brain gets anxiously focused, and increasingly dependent, on an activity or substance as a source of comfort. What gets lost when this happens is the ability to live life without fear and shame.

Feel-goods and feel-bads are there to teach us and inform us.

They are sensations in the body – messages from your body to you – that tell you where we are in relation to where we want to ideally be. This is valuable information! In order to utilize this information, however, you have to know how to manage your fear response to keep your mind and body calm enough to prevent your brain from shifting out of “learning” into “protective” mode.

Toxic thinking prevents change. How?

Toxic feel-good patterns are excuses or lies we tell ourselves that are rigidly held in place by fear, and that block us from seeing our own and other’s potential. They:

  • Hold your brain in ready position to easily activate your protective defenses. In survival mode, your subconscious mind allows no learning, thus, no influence.
  • Block your growth, as keeps you trying to experience love with only half your heart. In order to influence desired change, you will need to befriend your subconscious.
  • Reinforce a rigid belief that emotions of love and vulnerability are mutually exclusive.  In other words, your thoughts are telling your subconscious that you “disdain” painful emotions, and you want to eliminate them, or “have to” avoid them in order to feel “okay” about yourself. This means you’re commanding your subconscious mind to break hard-wired directives – which it cannot and will not do! You are wired to struggle with your fears and vulnerabilities. It’s how you grow courage and stretch to love with your whole heart.
  • Keep you relating to yourself and life around you from a cognitive-emotional neural pattern you formed in the first years of your life, your early survival-love map – particularly when you feel stress or triggered.

Because limiting beliefs and toxic thought patterns can mislead the energies of your mind and body, it’s up to you to consciously direct change.

Your thoughts are your best leverage to transforming your life.

You need a way, a conscious way of observing your self and life, a conscious method of regularly imparting life-energizing thoughts into your mind as often as possible. You need a way of thinking that consciously embraces what is good for your mind and body, and other essential aspects of your life, your relational health, financial independence, self-actualization, etc.

  • You can, for example, learn to associate “disgust” with substances or activities that you previously associated with feel-good feelings. You can use conscious thoughts to condition your mind and body to be “repelled” by what is not good for your mind, body, emotions and spirit.
  • You are fully equipped to manage, and consciously direct, certain subconscious energies of your body and, as captain, guide the ship of your Life in the direction of your highest aspirations.
  • You have access to miracle-making inner resources to consciously think, create, imagine and act wisely.

Notably, your subconscious mind treats your thoughts and beliefs tentative directives or commands. It relies on your thoughts to form your perceptions. It would also be thrilled to be your first mate, and ‘genie’ of sorts. It was not designed to serve as a 24/7 alarm system, as this type of ‘protection’ (not unlike an overprotective parent) harms your all around health.

You can, and must, in the interest of your health and well-being, transform any toxic thought patterns and associated limited beliefs.

You need conscious you to be the captain of your life.

Thoughts influence change because they shape how you relate (respond, react, etc.) to events and life in and around you.

As perceptions, your thoughts are stop and go lights for the cells of your brain (and body) known as neurons. For example, most persons would vehemently refuse a request to step into a lion’s cage, and would likely be ready to fight or flee any demands to do so, right? Yet, what if the person were a lion tamer? They’d likely enter with confidence. The only difference? Based on their life experience, a lion tamer has a completely different perception of the situation.

Accepting the role of captain of your life thus necessitates conscious work to produce conscious change. It means identifying toxic thinking patterns as they surface and replacing them with life enriching ones.

This can mean integrating the old with the new or exploring parts of your self you may have disowned when you were a child.

To take the helm as captain of your life  means you learn and know how:

  • To calm your mind (logic) and body (emotions) so that they may work cooperatively as one team – rather than adversaries.
  • To integrate new meanings and beliefs about yourself and life so you may rewrite your life story in ways that allow you to see and feel your value as separate from your experiences or actions.

Change processes invite you to participate actively and consciously in making new sense of your life and experiences in ways that produce optimal emotional states within you. It’s up to you to take the reins of re-writing, creating your self-concept and life story.

Your thoughts create emotional ‘standards’ that can either free or limit your heart and choices. Make them liberating.


Begley, Sharon (2007). Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. NY: Ballantine Books.

Bloom, Paul (2010). How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. NY: W. W. Norton.

Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.

The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns (2 of 2)

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2013). The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns (2 of 2). Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Dec 2013
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