My partner snores. Not the gentle rocking snore of vibrating bamboo, but the ferocious gravelly snore of a crocodile snapping at a flamingo. Key to my success in sleeping with a snappy crocodile is learning to filter out certain sounds and simply not hear them. I know this is possible because when I lived in New York City I learned to sleep through the ear-piercing screech of bus brakes, the roar and honk of firetrucks, and the oscillation of sirens. Obviously, many people learn to sleep through that sort of noise, so I don’t think it’s the actual sound that keeps us awake, it’s how we think about the sound. By intentionally controlling my thoughts, I tune out the crocodile until his snoring doesn’t exist for me. It’s a skill that takes practice.
On my farm I was an Airbnb host for a couple years and most of my guests were from New York City. When one of them complained that the rooster crowing disturbed his sleep, I asked him how he slept through the noise of sirens in the city. He said he didn’t even hear them anymore. I suggested he similarly filter out the sound of my rooster. I said, don’t think about the rooster the way you don’t think about the siren. In a sense, the siren never enters your mind. Your brain knows the sound is irrelevant and blocks your thoughts about it. When a siren shrieks, you don’t think I hate that, and now I’m awake and I can’t sleep. You’ve trained yourself not to think that. City people train themselves to sleep through city noise. Likewise, country people train themselves to sleep through country noise.
Similarly, I’ve trained myself to sleep through the noise of crocodile snoring. I don’t hear it because I don’t allow myself to even think about it. Not one thought. I shut down any thoughts about his snoring before my inner voice says, damn that’s loud, this is insane, how does anybody sleep through that, how does he sleep through it, OMG, I can’t sleep, it’s too loud, I hate his snoring because it keeps me awake. Instead, I say to myself, I’m not thinking about that, that sound does not exist for me. And I keep repeating those phrases in my mind until they block out the sound.
Every thought that goes through my head is a cocktail of brain chemistry that has a physical pattern of feelings, and when I repeat the pattern frequently, the chemistry repeats until my body produces it reflexively. Take my addiction for example. 2023 is my 20-year anniversary of quitting smoking cigarettes. Next June will be my three-year anniversary of quitting alcohol. Thoughts of craving are still with me, mental patterns blazed by years of habitual consumption. My inner addict says, I want that, wouldn’t that taste good, wow I miss getting buzzed. To avoid those thoughts, I abstain from the environments that trigger them. I tell myself cigarettes are disgusting. I remind myself how miserable I was not sleeping because I drank too much. Wiping out my mental cravings is not as easy for me as mentally blocking out a sound. Maybe because I’m trying not to think about something that I have a history of enjoying. By avoiding a triggering situation like sitting at a bar, I am avoiding the pattern that prompts cravings. So, my mind control skills need the support of my behavior.
What I’m really doing is making mood soup. My recipe is positive thoughts that create positive brain chemistry that results in positive behavior. That may be an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Thoughts and behavior are linked in a feedback loop by brain chemistry. Mental illness disrupts these connections and makes them more difficult if not impossible to manage. But after decades of learning about myself, I believe I can control how I feel by consciously controlling my thoughts.
I’m using intentional thinking to redirect my brain toward a better state of mind. For example, I am not afraid. I am thankful. I forgive. These phrases are key to managing my inclination toward depression. I use them to redirect my mood away from the quicksand of hopelessness. It’s not that I’m trying to be happy all the time. I’m just trying to be stable. When I have bleak thoughts of existential dissatisfaction with myself, my life, I have other more positive thoughts to mix with them that dilute the negative chemistry. It’s not a cure, it’s a technique for stopping a pattern of behavior.
To support my intentional thoughts, I behave intentionally. I go into my garden and nurture my plants. I stroll through the forest. I throw a ball for my dog. I drive into farm country and watch the cows. Processing these situations tells my brain I’m okay, I have the good fortune to be here, I love this place, I like how my kale is wintering, I look forward to pulling more carrots, I admire a piliated woodpecker, I notice how last year’s sunflowers resemble driftwood, how rich the sheen of red cows in the sun. I choose these observations of light to dilute the chemistry of a dark mood, consciously mixing the ingredients of my mental cocktail to redirect myself away from dissatisfaction toward appreciation, the feeling of plenty and a willingness to endure. This is my recipe for making mood soup. I invite you to try it.
~ : ~
A Path to Well-Being: Get to Know Your Neurotransmitters by Sandy Cohen, published MAY 10, 2022 on Shondaland.com