Remember the childhood rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" It sounds optimistic, but it’s actually not true.
According to neuroscientists and brain communication researchers, words can do damage. In fact, negative words release chemicals in your brain that cause stress. Angry words send alarm messages through the brain that shut down logic and reasoning centers. Our minds are hardwired to worry.
But it gets worse. Just like that horror movie where the babysitter discovers the killer is calling from inside the house, some of the most damaging words are the ones we tell ourselves.
"Self-esteem is a word-based inner dialogue going on in your brain," says Mark Robert Waldman, coauthor of Words Can Change Your Brain (Penguin Group, 2013).
An expert on communication, spirituality, and the brain, Waldman says he and other researchers discovered that very few people are conscious of the way they speak. "Inner dialogue is going on at all times in the frontal lobe [of the brain]," he says. "The left side of the brain is optimistic, focused on problem solving and decision making. But the right side is the pessimistic part of the brain, and it’s constantly generating worry fears and doubts."
Waldman says the good news is that you can train yourself to move to the left side of your brain through a two-step process of relaxation and positivity exercises.
Most of us don’t know how to relax, says Waldman, but it’s quite simple. He offers four ways to get to a state of relaxation, relieving mental stress:
- Run in place for 60 seconds. Waldman says he has a treadmill next to his desk, and he takes quick running breaks throughout the day to clear his mind.
- Close your eyes and roll your head 360 degrees, taking a full minute to do one full rotation.
- Yawn 10 times even if you don’t feel like it. After the first few yawns, your body will kick in with real ones.
- Very slowly stroke your hand or your arm with your fingertip.
All of these exercises lower activity in the part of your brain that generates negative emotions. "Your attention shifts from the thoughts and words going on in your mind to the experience that’s happening in your body in the present moment," says Waldman.
Once your pessimistic voice is turned off and you’re in a relaxed state, it’s time for positivity. Waldman says you should ask your intuition—which is that subtle inner voice of wisdom—what is your deepest innermost value? Write down the first word that comes to mind. It could be integrity or peace, for example. Then, for one minute each morning focus on that word.
A faculty member at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Waldman had his MBA students practice the relaxation and positivity exercises for 10 days in a row. He says the process reduced their stress over the course of nine months. "This was so powerful [that] we later implemented it as a core module in our executive MBA program," he says.
Keep the positivity flowing by taking relaxation breaks throughout the day. Waldman says he takes three 10-second breaks each hour. "It refreshes my concentration and I do better work," he says. You can also post your value word on a card and keep it near you as a visual reminder.
Exercising your brain to be more optimistic is like exercising your muscles to gain strength. "If you spend a few minutes doing this each morning, I could put you in a brain scan machine after eight weeks and the negative activity in your brain will have decreased," he says. "Use these exercises, and you’ll have more self-confidence and a better quality of life. And if you stay in this deep state of relaxed mindful attentiveness, other people around you will resonate with what you are doing."