Changing negative thoughts is the fourth step in how to heal from abuse. My three past blogs examined the importance of naming abuse, identifying partners’ domination beliefs, and centering practices.
Noticing and adjusting your thoughts is an important mental health skill for everyone. Knowing how the brain works provides a good foundation, but don’t worry, this is not going to become really technical.
Understanding How Brains Work
Changing negative thoughts starts with knowing some information about the brain. Such knowledge helps you realize why you respond the way you do when you receive a nasty text or have other traumatic interactions. This realization blocks shame about your reactions, and instead helps you make empowering choices going forward.
The left hemisphere is the logical part of the brain, It engages in problem solving, reading, writing, planning, learning, and remembering.
The right hemisphere is the creative and intuitive part of the brain. Besides creating, it processes our environment, others’ tone of voice and facial and body cues, and our emotional reactions to them. This emotional part of the brain allows us to react and protect ourselves when needed.
The bridge between the two hemispheres passes messages back and forth. Most of the time this bridge is open, and we can operate logically, intuitively, creatively, and emotionally at the same time. However, this connection closes when we feel stressed or in danger.
Last is a messenger part of the brain. It monitors the messages between the two hemispheres and shuts down the communication between them when we feel stressed. This enables quick reactions, such as fight, flight, and freeze, but it reduces our ability for clear and logical thinking.
All four parts of the brain provide important services. They work together to permit effective daily functioning and quick protection.
An Example of Trauma’s Effect on the Brain
My last blog, Partners’ Domination Beliefs, recognized that stress reactions are a normal response to trauma. Now that we reviewed how the brain works, you can see why your brain shifts to protective or survival mode whenever you perceive physical or emotional danger. Here is an example.
Sandy and Morgan are involved in a contentious custody battle because of Morgan’s emotional and occasional physical abuse. Sandy fears Morgan’s violent reactions and their effect on the children.
Morgan accuses Sandy of trying to alienate the children when she says no to changing weekends at the last moment. When Morgan reacts with verbal abuse and threats through dozens of texts, Sandy feels anxiety and fear because of their previous history.
Episodes like this occur weekly. Sandy sometimes experiences panic symptoms, with a surging heart rate and shortness of breath. This leads her to avoid looking at emails or texts, which recently led to a reprimand by the family court counselor in their case. Other times, Sandy responds with outrage about Morgan’s continuing abuse, and reacts by also using name-calling and threats. Sandy wants to find ways to protect herself that she can feel good about.
Brain science tells us that Sandy’s pathway between the logical and emotional brain closes when Morgan gets scary. The messenger brain is doing its job of protecting from perceived threat. When Sandy shuts down and avoids, her brain is reacting with freeze and flight mode. If Sandy uses verbal abuse, the brain is reacting with fight mode. Sandy does not have access to her logical brain during these episodes.
Fortunately, you can learn how to regain access to the logical brain so you can respond in effective and empowering ways, instead of reacting in ways that limit your power.
First, Use Centering to Reset the Brain
It is impossible to think clearly when we feel strong emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety. That adage, “take a deep breath before responding” is quite wise. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, we want to defend ourselves. Yes, sometimes we go down the rabbit hole of reacting or shutting down before we remember to use new tools.
The good news is that practice forms new habits so don’t give up. Look back at the handout from Centering to find suggestions. Using self-care allows your brain to calm and reset. It permits you to respond instead of reacting through the emotional side of the brain. If appropriate, you can also ask someone supportive to brainstorm with you ways to respond.
Reacting is only helpful when there is immediate danger, like a car pulling out in front of you. We want quick reactions then. However, reacting does not help when you are triggered by an abusive person. In many cases, it plays into their hands, making you look bad. This may lead to you feeling terrible about yourself. If this has been the case, stop, reset, take responsibility for what you want to change, and read on.
Second, Evaluate Thoughts
Changing negative thoughts becomes possible after resetting the brain. This involves noticing your thoughts and evaluating whether they are helpful. The handout this month is Self-defeating and Self-enhancing Thoughts. Its purpose is to help you catch unhelpful thoughts that keep you dis-empowered. By switching to self-empowering thoughts, it builds your belief and trust in your ability to handle stressful situations.
We often behave as if our thoughts are always true. We have many thoughts during a day, some of them true and rational. Others may be false and self-defeating. Their roots often come from misperceptions or buying into your partner or others’ criticisms, such as:
“You’re selfish and only think about yourself.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re stupid and aren’t capable of taking care of yourself (and your children).”
“You’ll never find someone else to love you.”
“You’ll never get away from me.”
These are examples of thoughts that can paralyze you. Whether these come from your partner’s verbal abuse or something you’ve always believed, changing negative thoughts will release you from what holds you back. The handout encourages you to switch to realistic, positive thoughts.
Learning to dispute self-defeating thoughts and not see them as always true will empower you to resist an abusive partner’s drama. Instead of being sucked into reacting and defending, you maintain your viewpoint in a calm manner. Gaining tools for managing your stress reactions results in feeling stronger and more in control of yourself. The coercive person will probably continue dominating tactics but will lose control of how you feel about yourself.
You may feel so beaten down that you have trouble believing work on your thinking will make a difference. Other possibilities are that you don’t think the self-enhancing thoughts are true, or you have trouble developing them. If any of these occur, seek a therapist who can support this work. Trauma has biological and emotional effects that often benefit from therapy. No shame about this; you’d go to a doctor for a physical injury, wouldn’t you?
Relatives and friends who reinforce abusive messages may be another roadblock. If they are abusive themselves, you might consider limiting your contact with them for now. Others may be used to your old ways but can adapt to changes you make. You will know the difference.
Change negative thinking and you’ll change your life.