I think it’s safe to say most people want to feel happy, calm, grounded and avoid being hijacked by their own emotions. Thankfully, studies in neuroscience are demonstrating how to do this. If stress, worry or fear come up for you frequently, you are either currently dealing with challenging life situations and/or there is likely good reason why your brain learned it need to be extra vigilant a long time ago. Perhaps your brain was wired this way.
For example, if you often felt rejected by your peer groups as a child, you may have a sensitivity to the perception of being left out by friends now. This is because your alarm center in your brain (the amygdala) has been trained to respond to this particular trigger. The problem is the alarm can go off by mistake, when this hasn’t happened. Sometimes even the fear of something happening can cause people to constantly scan the environment for “that thing” to happen when it might not be happening at all. There are countless other vulnerabilities that people carry as wounds from childhood such as not being good enough or lovable at all.
I attended a workshop led by Rick Hanson, PhD and author of many books. He covered some of what he feels are the most important elements of his recent book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time to encourage brain change (self-directed neuroplasticity) for more happiness and peace of mind. The brain can rewire itself in the right conditions.
These brain and life enhancing conditions are:
- Spacious Awareness: Because “nerves that fire together, wire together,” the ability to skillfully direct ones attention is a fundamental way to shape ones brain over time. If you spend a lot of time in a negative and critical space, your mind will be emotionally reactive, anxious and vulnerable to mood shifts. If you focus more on things like the beauty around you in the moment and gratitude, the mind is more able to remain calm and peaceful. Consider your attention like a spotlight, illuminating what it rests upon. Stay mindful of what you choose to focus on as it matters to your brain. Discerning between when you’re in the “doing” vs “being” mode is an important piece too. “Doing” tends to personalize and spend too much time in the past or future. “Being” tends to take a birds-eye-view and stay in the present.
- Taking in the Good: According to Dr. Hanson, “taking in the good” is one of the most important things you can do for your brain. Because of our brain’s negativity bias, we tend to scan the environment for bad news then possibly fixate and overreact. He suggests that by holding positive experiences in your awareness for at least 30 seconds, they can be taken down into the brain rather than “like water through a sieve.” Notice positive facts either by journaling or gratitude and deliberately spend the time letting it soak into your brain and body. A great time to practice this is before going to bed when you can cycle through a number of positive things that occurred during the day and intentionally reflect on them. It often helps to symbolically imagine them being integrated, either via a golden light or even imagining yourself as a sponge soaking them in.
- Loved and Loving: Self-compassion is integral to resilience and self-worth. We are wired to connect to others and it’s often harder to do so if there is little love and connection to ourselves. Self-compassion is about “getting on our own side.” If you get triggered by a situation or another person, first get on your own side then validate rather than deny or minimize your feelings, “Ouch, that hurt!” Rather than stay in that feeling move ahead and make an action plan. For example, if someone you care about hurt your feelings, figure out how you might productively address that.
- Restorative Relaxation: We live in an over-stressed society. There are physical, mental and neural consequences to chronic stress. Our immune and other body systems take a hit, the increase of the stress hormone cortisol creates a vicious cycle between the mind, nervous system and behavior and over time, our amygdalas get over-sensitized and the hippocampus (responsible for memory, learning and emotion) can actually shrink. Ways to “cool the fires” include deep breathing (in three beats, out six) to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and noticing we’re safe in the moment.
- Natural Happiness: Dr. Hanson described the “fundamental resting space” of the human brain to be peaceful, happy and loving. The brain is most reactive around fear and anger. Often this occurs when we feel threatened, believe we are not successful at achieving our goals or when a relational loss (heartache) has occurred. We have choices to react or be responsive. It surely serves us to “react” to danger but we often get triggered to believe we are in danger when we really are not. It’s in these times that you will be greatly served to respond mindfully and with presence instead. Start to notice whether you’re reacting or responding throughout your day.