You may have heard the phrase “You are what you eat,” but a more accurate phrase might be, “You are what you think.” Though we don’t always notice them, our thoughts are real and have very strong effects on our mind, our physical body, and our actions. A simple internet search about the impact of thoughts yields results about the effect of beliefs and attitudes such as optimism, fate, and trustworthiness on everything from cardiovascular health to physical pain.
What is the connection? An easy-to-follow explanation that is accessible even for teens and older children can be found in the book Mind Coach: How to Teach Children and Teenagers to Think Positive and Feel Good by Dr. Daniel Amen. To summarize Dr. Amen’s work, our thoughts send electrical signals in our brain that release chemicals into our body. Positive thoughts release feel-good chemicals, and negative thoughts release harmful chemicals. When negative thoughts outweigh positive or helpful ones, we can experience stress, anxiety, sadness, depression, or frustration. These feelings influence how we behave as well as how our body reacts. For example, anxious or frustrated thoughts such as, “This always happens to me!” instantaneously trigger negative chemicals that increase heart rate and blood pressure. These thoughts can also lead people to act in ways that are unhelpful or damaging to themselves and their relationships. For example, thinking that bad things always happen to you may lead to lead to lashing out in frustration by hitting a wall or yelling. Continuing to have these thoughts over time without dealing with them can lead to stress or sadness accompanied by maladaptive behaviors like substance use or overeating.
Are we destined to negative health outcomes because we experience negative thoughts? No! Thoughts may be real with very real effects, but they are not always accurate. Take the example above. A thought like, “This always happens to me!” is very rarely true as, with a little effort, we can think of examples when the outcome was different. Even though many of us are not naturally aware of our moment-to-moment thoughts, we can train ourselves to become aware of our thoughts and to change them to be more accurate, helpful, and positive. As a result, we can feel better and be healthier.
But how does all this affect parenting? Our thoughts are with us every moment of the day, impacting everything we do. By extension, our thoughts not only influence what kind of parent we are, but also the quality of our parenting. Thoughts such as, “My child is acting this way only to annoy me;” “I can’t handle this;” “They’re never going to change;” or “I’m the worst parent” can lead to feeling anger, despair, or sadness. These strong feelings can determine what actions we take in the moment. Negative thoughts can lead to ineffective parenting actions such as nagging, yelling, or withdrawing. Recognizing these thoughts allows us to challenge and correct them, leading us to choose more effective parenting strategies. In moments of negative thinking, we can learn to take a deep breath and say something encouraging to ourselves, take a step away from the situation to think more clearly, or implement reasonable consequences to our child if necessary. In the same way, our children’s thoughts impact their mood, choices, and behaviors. Knowing that unhelpful thoughts might influence our children’s unpleasant behavior can help us parent with empathy and help them understand their emotions and actions.
Though many of us are not actively aware of our thoughts, we can learn to not only notice but also control our thoughts. The interplay between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a well-studied and frequently-used approach by therapists. This therapeutic approach helps people identify negative thoughts and behaviors and change them to thoughts and behaviors that are more adaptive and helpful. If you or a loved one is struggling with negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, please consider contacting a therapist to learn more about thinking, feeling, and acting differently.