You Are What You Think

You Are What You Think

“I’m not strong enough”, “I can’t do that”, “that’s impossible”. Sound familiar? We’ve all said something similar at some point to ourselves. And we believed it. Sometimes we try anyway, only to prove ourselves right. We tell ourselves phrases that hold us back because we believe we’re not capable of achieving something. “Just one more rep”, “one more mile”, “I got this”. We’ve all said this too and turned something seemingly impossible into possible. How? Do we underestimate ourselves? Probably, yeah. But there’s a little more to it.

We’re modern-day superheros. We might not be able to shoot lasers out of our eyes or teleport (oh, but I wish I could), but the potential of our minds is incredible.

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between something happening to you and you just thinking or seeing it. When Noah read Allie their life story, and Allie listened longingly, engrossed but unaware it was her story. When they slipped away together, holding each other for the last time. I cried like a baby. Why? It wasn’t happening to me. They weren’t even real people. It was a movie. But my brain didn’t know that. My brain thought it was happening right in front of me and—rightfully—made me a blubbering mess.

Our brains have trouble separating imagination and beliefs from reality. There have been a few scientific studies, and examples in holistic health, where imagining something has produced the same results as actually doing something.

One study had volunteers learn a sequence of piano notes over five consecutive days. The volunteers were separated into three groups: one group had to play the note sequence on a piano, the second group had to imagine playing the notes and the third group didn’t play, or imagine playing, the piano at all. We expect the group who actually played the piano to be better than the group that neither played or imagined playing the piano. And this happened. But what they also saw was that the brain scans of the groups who played the piano—imaginary or real—were nearly identical.

It didn’t matter if they played the piano, or just imagined it, their brains learnt the note sequence the same way.

If you think about it, this is actually a no brainer.

We’ve evolved to survive. Back when we were cavemen, if we saw a clan running, we’d run too without even knowing why they were running. Our brains are hardwired to save us and respond to deal with problems in the real world. Since our brain thinks a fictional scene in front of us is reality, it responds as if it were actually a threat.

We deal with threats – real or not – with a fight-or-flight response. The body instinctively responds to a threat by triggering hormones to either deal with it or run from it.

When presented with a mental or physical threat, the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for priming the body for action) is activated and triggers the release of chemicals like cortisol and hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline. These kickstart the body, increasing heart rate and blood flow to your muscles to give you strength.

So when your heart starts beating out of your chest in a scary movie, it’s happening because your brain thinks you might actually get hurt.

We also make our brain subconsciously keep a figurative eye out for something, or respond to a situation in some expected way. Like when you’re looking at buying a new Mustang, you’ll start seeing it everywhere even though before you could have sworn no one had that car. It wasn’t that no one was driving it. It was that you just didn’t care enough to give it any attention before.

This is called priming. You now see it everywhere because you’ve subconsciously told your brain that you’re interested in seeing it.

Priming is when something, someone, or somewhere, triggers associations that are set in our brain, making us act in a certain way without being aware of it. Like putting a heavier weight than you’re used to on your squat rack (association: heavy weight is hard to lift), and you can’t rep it (subconscious act: hard to lift so I can’t rep it).

The associations are there all the time. When you do something that triggers the link, you also trigger the thoughts, behaviours or emotions that make you act in the expected way. All of this happens subconsciously.

Want to test it out? Next time you do bench, try getting your spotter to blindfold you and stack your weights so that there’s no association. You might easily lift more than your PR 😊

When you tell yourself “I can’t” do something, you won’t be able to, or “I’m not” something, you won’t be.

It’s that simple.

You’re priming your brain to limit your abilities because it ‘knows’ your body isn’t capable of it. You’re priming your brain to give up, because it ‘knows’ you can’t do it. You’re self-sabotaging.

What about aging? “I’m too old for this.” We’re told that as we get older, our bodies just won’t be able to do what it used to. That we’ll get weak. We’ll get chronic pain and feel tired all the time. And unsurprisingly, exactly that happens. We do age. But to what extant is it just aging and how much is because we believe it’s what should be happening?You only have to look at countries where people live the longest to see some common factors—exercise, positivity and an optimistic outlook. In northern Italy, you still see people beyond 80 hiking the slopes of the Dolomites. I bet they’re not thinking “I’m too old for this”.

People have achieved amazing, impossible things simply because they believed they could and worked hard to do it. Every one of your PRs is exactly that. You couldn’t do it before. You thought it was impossible before. But now you can. It’s not impossible. What are you missing out on, because you believe you can’t do it? What dream are you letting pass by, because you believe it’s not possible for you?

When Michael Jordan made that dunk from the free-throw line, he knew he was going to make it. How? Because not making it wasn’t even registered as an option in his mind.

I. Am. Two words that are so powerful when put together. Follow these words with a positive adjective, and you’ll feel how powerful they are. Brave. Fierce. Strong. Try them out.

Next time you feel self-doubt creep in, or think you’re looking at the impossible. Take some breaths. Clear your mind and try those two words together with your adjective.

Say it again.

And again.

Until you believe it.

Say those words and believe it, and you’re giving yourself the greatest super power you can have.


P.S. A great read about how your mindset can affect change, even with disorders and diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer: “You Are the Placebo” by Joe Dispenza 

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