Way back when I was in school, I learned that once people become adults, it’s all downhill brain-wise.
Thank goodness, we have learned better! Brains change throughout life, and we have learned a lot about how to make changes we want to make.
This time of social seclusion and pandemic fear may be the perfect time to support your mental and emotional health by engaging in some deliberate positive-brain development. We acknowledge that shifting one’s thinking from negative to positive is hard in calm times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic! Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Resilience: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, notes that “…the brain has a negativity bias. This helped our ancestors survive, and it’s very good at learning from bad experiences, but it’s very bad at learning from good experiences.” Nevertheless, he goes on, “The brain takes its shape from whatever your mind routinely rests upon.” So how do you get it to more often rest upon positive things?
We have collected seven pointers for you here.
#1 Look for alternative, positive frames
One of the simplest ways to begin to shift away from fear and anxiety is to try to reframe some of your negative thoughts. You’ll find samples of positive memes we’ve collected scattered throughout this blog post.
In my office, I’ve printed out these memes and taped them (along with cute animal and nature pictures) to the wall above my desk, so that literally every time I look up, I see things that make me smile.
#2 Notice and create good experiences
Because our survival brain is focused on detecting threats to our wellbeing in the best of times (and of course, that is even more true during a pandemic), we tend not to register what is going right. We need to work at paying attention when something positive happens. Even better, we can consciously create positive experiences to enjoy. These could be anything: going outside to enjoy a sunny day, doing an art or craft project, calling a friend, taking a hot shower or bath.
#3 Luxuriate in positive experiences
If we are trying to shift our automatic bias away from negativity, it is not enough to simply notice a positive experience and immediately move on. If we want to start changing our brain in a positive way, we need to move an experience from our short-term memory buffer (which gets overwritten with new experiences) into long-term storage. That process takes ten to twenty seconds. Dr. Hanson says we need to “enrich the experience and absorb it. In your mind, enriching an experience means keeping it going and feeling it fully, while absorbing it feels like receiving it into yourself.”
Here are his tips for enriching an experience:
- Lengthen it. Stay with it for five, ten, or more seconds. The longer that neurons fire together, the more they tend to wire together. Protect the experience from distractions, focus on it, and come back to it if your mind wanders.
- Intensify it. Open to it and let it be big in your mind. Turn up the ‘volume’ as it were by breathing more fully or getting a little excited.
- Expand it. Notice other elements of the experience. For example, if you’re having a useful thought, look for related sensations or emotions.
- Freshen it. The brain is a novelty detector, designed to learn from what’s new or unexpected. So look for what’s interesting or different about an experience. Imaging that you are having it for the very first time.
- Value it. We learn from what is personally relevant. Be aware of why the experience is important to you, why it matters, and how it could help you.”
Don’t be afraid to involve your emotions.
“Keep looking for what could be fresh or surprising about what you’re doing. Dopamine spikes when the brain encounters novelty. Also, help yourself get as excited or intense as is appropriate. This increases adrenaline, which strengthens the association between the activity and its rewards.”
#4 Absorb each positive experience
Once you’ve enriched an experience, take your time with it. Dr. Hanson advises: “Don’t shift into the next thing without registering the rewards of what you have just done. You worked for those and deserve them.”
- Intend to receive it. Consciously choose to take in the experience.
- Sense it sinking into you. You could imagine that the experience is like a warm soothing balm or a jewel being placed in the treasure chest of your heart. Give over to it, allowing it to become a part of you.
- Reward yourself. Turn into whatever is pleasurable, reassuring, helpful, or hopeful about the experience. Doing this will tend to increase the activity of two neurotransmitter systems – dopamine and norepinephrine – that will flag the experience as a ‘keeper’ for long-term storage.”
#5 Cultivate gratitude
Another technique that helps in shifting a negative tendency to a more positive one is to cultivate gratitude. Simply stopping for a moment to mentally say, “I am grateful for this” when something good happens or you recognize you are using something useful or viewing something pleasing can be helpful. Much better is building in a daily review. This can be a gratitude journal or an evening review of what you are grateful for that day. One specialist recommends, “Think of one thing that you have never thought about being grateful for before, and it has to be something that you noticed during the day.” Then list that item in your daily review. He notes, “This practice makes you mindful, because, ‘Gosh, I’m going to have to come up with something to be grateful for tonight as part of my practice.’”
#6 Recognize satisfaction
Humans are wanting machines. Fill one desire and we immediately think of the next one. Although that process is natural, it can leave people feeling chronically unfulfilled. Dr. Hanson recommends that we notice when we feel satisfied, and how that practice can help us:
“Any experience in which there is a sense of satisfaction – such as gratitude, pleasure, and accomplishment – is an opportunity to feel that this need has been met, at least for the moment. In addition to specific experiences, also be mindful of the general sense of being already full, that his moment is already enough; try the practice in the box. If you repeatedly internalize these experiences of satisfaction – even mild and passing experiences in daily life – they will gradually build up an unconditional feeling of contentment deep down inside you. Then you’ll carry an underlying happiness with you wherever you go.”
#7 Be compassionate
Dr. Hanson says it better than we could:
“Giving compassion lowers stress and calms your body. Receiving compassion makes you stronger: more able to take a breath, find your footing, and keep on going. You get the benefits of both giving and receiving compassion when you offer it to yourself.”
Nearly everyone can use one, two, or all of these tips to help themselves feel better. However, they may not work for you if you are severely depressed and find it “almost impossible to activate to the first step – the positive experience – in the first place.” If that’s the case for you, try to settle for self-compassion: this time is hard on all of us, and it’s harder for those with depression.