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Internal Environmental “Pollution”

External pollutants challenge our health every day; but the most potent poisons we encounter may come from within. “Negative thinking,” asserts psychologist Dr. Dan Chartier, “is extremely toxic, affecting our health and, ultimately, shaping our lives.

Dr. Chartier counsels a young patient whose brain activity is being monitored.

“I regularly see clients coping with the impact of this kind of highly toxic thinking,” he says. “Their guiding voice through life says, ‘I’m not, I can’t, I’ll never, I’ll always.’ And such messages and beliefs have enormous power, producing not only long-lasting emotional distress, but tangible physical effects.”

Dr. Chartier describes a recent patient as an all-too typical example: “The bullying and abus-ive behavior of this gentleman’s family of origin led to his accepting similarly toxic behavior in his adult relationships, including his marriage. Not only did he expect his personal relationships to be abusive, but that inner voice blamed himself for the abuse.

“That’s the kind of toxicity I’m talking about,” he explains. “It’s how we keep creating our future out of our past. Our reactions to certain things reawaken old traumas that have not been resolved. And thus, we are poisoned by our internal environment.”

The Toxins That Shape Our Thinking

Dr. Chartier explains that many factors play a part in shaping the internal narrative guiding our lives, including experience and relationships at different, formative life stages. But toxic internal messages can be introduced in a number of ways. “For example, the amount and type of screen time that children are exposed to can be detrimental to their psycho-emotional development,” he says. “And the problem is not just on-line bullying; there is a more subtle ‘pollutant’ present in the detached nature of on-line interaction, where we lose the important personal and emotional aspects of in-person communication.

“Other external factors also pollute the inner environment and cause significant trauma,” notes Dr. Chartier, “including the level of violence in our culture or social forces such as pervasive racism and bigotry.”

These external factors can shape the degree to which a toxic internal narrative persists, he explains, “and can provide daily triggers that reinforce our negative thinking. Until people can clear such toxins and change the narrative, they will continue to have ‘infections’ triggered by day-to-day events,” explains Dr. Chartier.

Toxic Thought Has Physical Impact

Dr. Chartier emphasizes that the impact of negative thinking goes beyond mental and emotional states; it finds its way into the body. “Negative thoughts are stressors,” he explains. “And stress—especially chronic, cumulative stress—has a huge impact on our health.

“Understanding the mind-body connection is actually helpful in addressing these internal pollutants, because—as one author described it—the subconscious is lodged in the body. So, we begin by looking for cues—through a variety of feedback techniques—for where toxic thoughts are ‘lodged in the body.’

‘My starting place,” he says, “is really a simple question: What are you feeling and where are you feeling it? For example, is there a consistent feeling of tightness in the chest, or some other tension in the body that is not related to a present stimulus?

“Psychophysiologic psychotherapy—which I practice—is a therapeutic approach that acknowledges the linkage between mental, emotional, and physical health. By measuring and monitoring the physiological symptoms of psychological distress—called biomarkers—we not only gain a better understanding of toxic thought patterns, but we have valuable tools to help patients resolve and move beyond them.”

Biomarkers include things such as microvolts of excess muscle tension, blood pressure changes, peripheral temperature resulting from blood flow to the extremities, and changes in brainwave activity. “Biofeedback and neurofeedback are among the many techniques in our ‘tool kit’ for measuring these biomarkers,” says Dr. Chartier. “Useful information could be something as simple as the variation in temperature at the end of a fingertip or muscle tension as measured by sensors attached to the skin; or we might see changes in brain waves from EEG readouts.

“All feedback devices have the capability of measuring biological information, and then representing that brain activity with some kind of visual display or sound,” he explains. “Often what we see as abnormality in those physiological measures is someone who is not making an effective adjustment to some change in life,” says Dr. Chartier.

Feedback tools, emphasizes Dr. Chartier, not only help identify problems, but are an important part of the healing process. “By signaling changes in the body’s functions—such as heart rate, muscle tension—feedback devices can help one to learn to control these functions unconsciously. It’s a matter of practice.”

A Helpful Toolkit

“One of the most exciting developments in the past several years,” notes Dr. Chartier, “is the movement towards low-cost biofeedback tools—such as the Muse headband and HeartMath Inner Balance—that hook up to smart phones and computers. This makes the feedback process much more accessible—allowing individuals to more accurately and consistently track progress at home and to learn to manage stress.”

Beyond basic biofeedback and neurofeedback tools, Dr. Chartier uses other methods to help his patients deal with the powerful effects of toxic thinking.

“EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is an example of an extremely powerful technique for getting to those deeply embedded toxic beliefs,” says Dr. Chartier. “This technique stimulates brain activity in a nonverbal way, which makes it possible to work with a person to process their perception of a traumatic event without ever knowing what the event was. They’re being naturally coaxed or invited out of the tension by this simple eye movement process.” Dr. Chartier often uses EMDR together with physical monitoring like heart rate variability feedback in order to track how well the process is working.

Another technique for appropriate clients involves Nexalin Transcranial Electrical Stimulation (TES). TES is based on the premise that every time people experience strong emotions, the brain, specifically the hypothalamus, creates neuropeptides that act like “emotional hormones.”

“The brain releases those chemicals into the bloodstream, and they flow through the body and dock on the receptor sites of cells, creating a physiological change,” says Dr. Chartier. “It’s almost like putting a key into a lock.”

The Nexalin device, he explains, “shifts the neurochemistry by gently stimulating the brain using a specific, patented waveform and frequency, basically free of side effects. This minor stimulation of the brain is nonetheless highly effective in disrupting chemical encoding of negative emotions in the brain. The hypothalamus—we call it ‘the brain’s brain’ or ‘the seat of emotion’—is the target for electrical stimulation to mediate mood disorders because of its role in maintaining balance in the brain-body system.”

As with EMDR therapy, Dr. Chartier employs neurofeedback together with Nexalin TES to strengthen and solidify the gains made with this therapy.