If you are feeling anxious, hopeless or can’t seem to shake a feeling of fear or general gloominess, you are not alone. If you do not suffer from feelings of anxiety or depression, you likely know someone who does. It is useful to know how our brains are hardwired so that we can better understand how and why anxiety and depression hijack us.
To put it simply, our brains are hardwired to safeguard our survival around three fundamental needs – safety, satisfaction and connection. If you are under attack and your physical survival is at risk, your body instinctively goes into an ancient autonomic mode of fight, flee, freeze or submit. These are intelligent responses to threats that can save your life.
However, the stresses of modern life trigger us to perceive threats
regardless of any contrary facts or beneficial experiences that may exist in the same space. If you read the news (online or otherwise), your inner alarm may be triggered frequently due to the volume of “bad news” that media highlights. “Negativity bias” is well-known in the media, meaning bad news garners more attention than good news and it is directly related to our brain bias toward the negative and toward threats to our survival.
As a result, the “good news” or “good facts” that exist wash away and are not absorbed. You could have 10 great things happen in your day, but if there is one negative experience, it effectively erases the 10 great things.
This is a critical piece of information to know about your brain. You aren’t a negative person, nor are you fundamentally flawed. You don’t have a broken brain; you have a normal brain. Your brain is doing exactly what it was designed to do, but modern life circumstances exaggerate the need for hyper-vigilance and the fear response. Unfortunately we can be easily manipulated by those who understand this and know how to stoke our fears. However, once you understand how your brain functions, you can regain the upper hand.
In the world of neuroscience, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to modify, change and adapt itself (both structure and function) in response to learning and life experiences. We can notice good facts around us and actively let them in.
Here’s another good fact – we have the brainpower to override an overactive threat response. With practice and consistency we can redirect our brains to bias towards more beneficial experiences. Understanding that our hardwiring to safeguard against threats is exactly that–hardwired–so that it will be there when we need it the most, even if we are happier, healthier and enjoying a greater sense of wellbeing.
A variety of programs exist to teach building awareness but I’ll talk specifically about Positive Neuroplasticity, the work of psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Rick Hansen. The fundamental idea of Positive Neuroplasticity is to train the brain towards rewards or
beneficial experiences and invite them into our brains and bodies; to “install” them and encourage the body to “digest” the good. Like with a savings account, the more beneficial experiences you bank, the more enriched you will feel. This is not about fabricating positive experiences and sweeping negative experiences under the rug. Using your mind, you make the positive experience larger and more important than the negative while understanding that positive facts can occupy the same space as the negative.
What good facts exist in real time for you? Finding good facts does not negate the bad ones, it simply balances the equation. Name three good facts that exist for you right now. Examples may include having a roof over your head and a safe place to sleep, having clean water to drink and food nearby or having someone who cares about you–a friend, family member or pet.
Take an extra 30 seconds with each good fact that you’ve identified and savor it. Sense what this good fact feels like in your body. Allow each good fact to sink in and register in your internal savings account.
A consistent practice of noticing and registering good facts in your daily experience will start to tip the balance in your brain towards wellbeing. Consider it nourishment, like eating fresh vegetables or fruits, that contributes to your overall sense of balance and wellness.
This is the tip of the iceberg. There are other practices that can take you deeper
into wellbeing, but it is wise to start simply and stay consistent before tackling the next phase. I’d love to hear how this practice works for you.