As we go through our daily lives, we are bombarded with a sea of new sensory input. Scientists have discussed how, in a given moment, there are thousands of sights, sounds and ideas our brains have to sift through to decide what’s important. So, in any moment, what we actually, see, hear, and think about is simply what our brains decided was worth our time. What does this have to do with anxiety, mental health, and happiness? Glad you asked.
Selective Attention: The Problem
What our brains tells us to pay attention to dictates the information we have about our world. Importantly, the information that our brain believes to be relevant is determined by our own beliefs.
Here’s an example: I’m terrified of spiders. Fortunately (and unfortunately), I also possess a super-human ability to notice even the tiniest or most well-hidden spider.
Why is this the case? Well, because my fear of spiders has told my brain that any information pertaining to spiders is something that the boss-lady (a.k.a. me) is probably going to want to know about.
Our brains believe the messages we tell them (e.g., “Spiders are evil”), and they use these messages to determine what information is important (“Hey look, a Spider!”).
Safety in a Threatening World: The History
The way we talk to ourselves about ourselves sends a powerful message to the brain about what information it should be bringing to the table. When we have certain fears or insecurities (e.g., “I’m socially awkward”), our brains look for evidence that proves our insecurity right (e.g., “Here’s a mental image of every embarrassing moment you’ve experienced since the age of 7. Enjoy!!!”).
This process feels really convincing, but believe me when I say it is an illusion. By very nature, we notice the times that confirm our deepest fears… and this developed as a way to protect ourselves!
Our ancestors had to worry about bears and rattlesnakes and all sorts of dangers that we no longer have to deal with. This tendency to pay attention, to LOOK for, dangerous situations helped keep them alive. (Yay, anxiety!)
Now, when many of the things we are afraid of are more abstract and less physically dangerous, this tendency isn’t as helpful. Our anxiety is still looking for danger, but when it doesn’t find any, it creates some. Sound familiar?
Self-Talk: The Solution
So, if humans have been selectively paying attention to the worst case scenario for years, how can we possibly hope to fix it? One way to start tackling the kind of evidence our brains go hunting for is to change the central messages, the core beliefs we have about ourselves.
What are the insecurities or fears you have about yourself? For me, a big fear is that I am actually not very smart or good at what I do, and sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out. My brain thinks it’s helping me by reminding me of all the times I’ve made mistakes, or by providing me with detailed ideas of what could possibly go wrong. (Thanks for that).
If we can flip those negative self-views, we can also change the information that readily comes to mind. Instead of thinking of all the times I’ve made mistakes, today, I’ll choose to think about all the times I’ve done well, the success stories, the times I’ve accomplished really difficult tasks. What does this evidence say about me? What does yours say about you?
As silly as it sounds, starting each day with positive self-talk and self-affirmations can slowly work to change the kind of information our brains look for. If I hear messages over and over that I am worthy, that I don’t have to prove myself, and that I’m valuable even when I make mistakes, some day soon, my brain will start to believe it, and will start to bring new information in to back it up.
So, whatever negative message you’re sending your brain, I challenge you to change it. Like me, you don’t have to prove your worth and value. Nothing can take that away.