We all seek happiness. We all want to feel calm, grounded and avoid being hijacked by our own emotional reactivity. Thankfully, the recent studies in neuroscience are demonstrating how to do this. If you find yourself easily stressed, worried and fearful, there are likely personal historical reason for this when your brain learned to be extra vigilant.
For example, if you had experiences of not being included in childhood, you may have a sensitivity to being left out of group situations or feeling invisible now. These types of situations may feel pretty big and painful to you! This is because your alarm center in your brain (the amygdala) has been trained to respond to this particular trigger. There are countless other sensitivities people carry such as fears of not being good enough, safe enough or in some cases, lovable at all.
I attended a workshop led by Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist and the author of Buddha’s Brain. 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 a peaceful, happy and at-ease mind by using the mind to change the brain for the better via self-directed neuroplasticity. In other words, the brain can rewire itself for the better in the right conditions.
What are these brain and life enhancing conditions?
- Spacious Awareness: Because “nerves that fire together, wire together,” the ability to skillfully direct ones attention is a fundamental way to shape ones brain and life over time. If you spend a lot of time thinking about things like negativity and criticism your mind will be emotionally reactive, anxious and vulnerable to painful mood shifts. If you focus more on things like the beauty around you in the moment and gratitude, the mind remains 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.