Cognitive hygiene

Have you heard of “stinking thinking?” It may be ruining your life, and it’s time to practice better cognitive hygiene.

By definition, cognition is the conscious mental activity of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering. Hygiene includes the things that one does to keep one’s self and surroundings clean in order to maintain good health. Therefore, cognitive hygiene is the moment to moment practice of positively managing your thoughts; this good habit results from the understanding that your thoughts truly matter.

Your thoughts can be poisonous, soothing, or neutral. If your goal is to feel better, start thinking about how to clean up your thoughts.

Let’s take a look at what kinds of thoughts might be mucking up your mind.

Your Shaming Inside Voice

Have you ever spent time really listening to the running dialogue inside your head? Some call it your silent “inside voice.” Perhaps sounds something like this:

(Listening to your boss) “She’s such a bitch.”

(While looking at your reflection) “I look like a fat ass.”

(Pushing through the grocery store) “Get outta my way, asshole.”

(Looking at your husband over morning coffee) “Shut up, you irritate the shit out of me.”

(Looking at the empty Big Mac box) “I’m a pig for eating that.”

(Looking at the cocaine) “Screw it; I deserve a little now and then”

Their Abusive Outside Voice

Who surrounds you? Do you have family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who sound like this?

(Says your girlfriend) “If you want to do that, go ahead. Whatever! I don’t care!”

(Says your friend about your other friend) “She’s such a bitch.”

(Says your mother) “You should….”

(Says your co-worker about another co-worker) “Look at her – she’s disgusting.”

(Says your buddy about his girlfriend) “I know, I know – I ought to leave her but she’s paying for my lifestyle.”

(Says your cousin) “My boyfriend is married, but his wife doesn’t understand him and they haven’t had sex is like 4 years. So it’s okay….”

Lying to yourself, abusive self-talk, and listening to people who are highly dysfunctional (poor relationships, abusing alcohol or drugs) are forms of poor cognitive hygiene because what is processed through your mind becomes your life’s reality. What you hear and say are turned into thoughts, and these thoughts form your idea of what is acceptable, common, normal, and unquestionable.

Negativity is so powerful that it can cause your brain and body to work less efficiently. Breeding dissatisfaction diminishes the quality of your life because you see the world through a filter of dark thoughts.

Toxic Thoughts Plow Deep, Filthy Ruts

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study about the effects of thoughts on brain function. Healthy women were asked to think positive and negative  thoughts while their brains were observed under neuroimaging devices. During the positive thoughts, the women exhibited a cooling of their emotional brain center, while during the negative thoughts, their brain’s emotional activity increased in an area associated with depression.

The brain’s neuroplasticity means this kind of activity affects the physical structure of the brain. As interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel says, “What fires together, wires together.” Like bad wiring can burn down a house, your toxic thoughts actually change the physical shape, circuitry, and chemistry of your brain. A constant barrage of poisonous self talk creates a well-worn path in your brain down which your mind will automatically travel.

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

1. Listen to your gloomy thoughts, bitchy comments, and abusive conversations that speed through your mind, as well as those that come from the mouths of your neighbors. All or nothing thinking, “always” shaming, focusing on the negative, anger, guilt, labeling, rumination, worry, blame, and mind reading are all examples of automatic negative thoughts.

2. Ask yourself if these thoughts are absolutely true, notice how you react when you think or hear those thoughts, and consider how you might feel if you didn’t have them in your head.

3. In relationships, drop the drama rope. Exit the cycle of misery. Negativity in relationships is like a tug of war: the game is played by two people pulling on each end of a rope. If one person drops their end of the rope, the game is over. You don’t have to pull on your end of the rope by engaging or responding to the person who is causing you stress, anger, frustration, or sadness.

4. Just shut up. Quit criticizing, correcting, telling, reminding, complaining about, and whining around others. Your negativity is a toxin in their environment.

5. Listen to yourself. Do you talk too much, inside and out? You will learn more about yourself and others by listening instead of always talking, ruminating, worrying, and plotting. Listening brings you into the moment, and this very moment is the only thing that matters.

6. Listen to the people with whom you surround yourself. Are they liars, cheaters, abusers, or addicts? Do they lie to their girlfriend? Cheat on their husband? Drink or do drugs to excess too many times during the week? Is their language abusive to others or to you? Worse, do you engage with them in this behavior? Ask yourself how this is affecting your own life, and how would your thinking and life improve if you no longer had that negative influence.

7. Realize what you can control. Wait: I’ll just tell you the answer: the only thing you can control in this world are your own thoughts. That is all. Period. Give up trying to control anything or anyone else. Including your brother, sister, mother, father, lover, husband, wife, teenager, boss, employee, or the driver in front of you. Stop it. Let. It. Go.

You are what you think. Your thoughts shape your world. And your thoughts are the only thing in this world that you can control.

Now what do you think about that?