By Larry Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP
Just as we develop various behavioral habits, we institute certain thinking habits, as well. Some of our behavioral habits are healthy, like exercising regularly, and some are not, like consuming a bowl of ice cream before bed. By the same token, some of our thinking habits are positive and healthy, like “I can do this” or “I deserve to be treated respectfully,” and, again, some thinking patterns are negative and unhealthy, like “I can’t do this—I always fail” or “I deserve to be mistreated—I am unworthy.”
This negative thinking that many folks regularly use includes negative self-thoughts (as seen above) and frequent fear-based questions, which typically begin with, “What if …?” Common examples are: “What if I fail?” “What if he/she doesn’t like me?” “What if something goes wrong?” etc. I colloquially refer to this form of cognition as “stinkin thinkin.”
Obviously “stinkin thinkin” can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and even depression, because according to Cognitive psychologists, what we think determines what we feel (emotionally). Additionally, “stinkin thinkin” also limits one’s success since it interferes with any risk-taking and/or thinking “out-of-the-box.” Most unfortunately, the pejorative effects of “stinkin thinkin” don’t end there, as if that weren’t enough. When someone alerts themselves with a negative thought about what might happen in the near future they unknowingly activate their natural defense system, commonly referred to as the “fight/flight” response.
The fight/flight system is housed in the anterior (primitive) part of our brain and is part of our autonomic (automatic) nervous system. The autonomic system manages the other systems we don’t have to think about—heart beats, respiration, blood pressure, holding our heads upright, etc. This system usually operates on its own but it will take orders from the cortex, the front, thinking part of the brain.
The flight/fight system is our response to (perceived) danger. This mechanism kept our pre-historic ancestors alive and continues to keep us alive today. When the cortex senses a threat it signals the fight/flight system which immediately prepares the individual to run or resist.
Research on fight/flight began in the 1980’s and continues today. More than two dozen physiological changes have been documented that automatically occur when the system is triggered. They include: widening of the pupils, increase in hearing acuity, increase in respiration, advanced heart rate, sweating, sugar and adrenalin are pumped into the blood, tightening of the muscles in the upper body and back, changes in blood flow away from the GI system into the heart and lung cavities, and blood flow directed away from the fingers and toes into the arms and legs, respectively, etc. More recently it was discovered a nasty hormone, cortisol, is also released into the blood system; while the use of that hormone is not yet understood it has been determined to be a carcinogen.
Fight/flight evolved in early humans to be used in emergencies—like a saber-toothed tiger entering the cave or neighboring tribesman attacking them. Today such tigers are extinct and although you may not like your neighbor, it’s unlikely they will assault you. Modern humans have far fewer emergencies than our ancestors but we have many more problems and annoyances—all of which still can trigger fight/flight: traffic, mortgages, difficult bosses, unfulfilling jobs, financial pressure, adolescent kids, marital issues, mothers-in law (perhaps), and, of course, “stinkin thinkin.”
Fight/flight is designed to be used rarely, in a dire emergency, but today many, many people are activating their system daily, several times a day, and in some cases even continually. Many people are thus being subjected to the physiological changes associated with fight/flight on an on-going basis. This over-use of the fight/flight system has led to an epidemic of “stress-related” psychosomatic complaints. (The epidemic of insomnia today, I believe, is due to the fact people are trying to go to sleep when their autonomic nervous system is preparing them for battle.)
Can “stinkin thinkin” make you sick? Absolutely! We must become aware of how our brain works and strive to manage our thoughts in a healthier, more nurturing manner. Just as we can, with effort, cease eating ice cream before bed, we can positively change our thoughts.
Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who practiced in the Paradise Valley area of Phoenix for nearly 40 years. He worked with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples. He also provided forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning. He speaks professionally on marriage, parenting, private practice development, psychotherapy, and wellness to laypersons, educators, corporations, attorneys, chiropractors, and fellow mental health professionals. He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department of Northern Arizona University. He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline;” “Coping with Your Adolescent;” “How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him? Making Your Marriage Work Better;” “The Graduate Course You Never Had: How to Develop, Manage, and Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care;” “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune? Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals,” and “Overcoming Your Negotiaphobia: Negotiating Your Way Through Life.” His contact information is: 602-418-8161; email–LarryWaldmanPhD@cox.net; website–TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.