Hardwiring Your Brain for Wellbeing

September 25, 2017

 

You've just done something really well....nailed a presentation, delivered the consummate performance, won a case, completed a successful operation. Everyone in the room is telling you that you did a great job, they loved it, high-fives all around etc. However, there is that one person who offers something negative. Thereafter the negative sticks with you, the positive has sifted through.

 

The reality is our brains are hardwired this way ~ we are prone to hold onto negative experiences (and build corresponding negative neural pathways) all the while failing to pay sufficient attention to the positive; historically, this was potentially the difference between dying and surviving. A type of neuronal hangover you might say.

 

We can even become our own harshest critics through our individual negativity bias. The good news is that we can change the inclination to hold onto the negative, and we are also able to overcome our negativity bias so that we refrain from having those negative thoughts or offering those negative comments.

 

"Your brain has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive." RickHanson

 

Neuropsychologist and professor Rick Hanson has demonstrated that by having or even reminiscing about positive experiences, enriching those experiences by staying with them for 12 seconds and then 'absorbing' those experiences through visualisation ~ it is possible to build positive neural pathways. Hanson's book Hardwiring Happiness explores this in great detail and he calls this exercise 'taking in the good'.

 

The conversion of positive mental states to lasting neural traits requires effort since we are consistently working against our negativity bias. Hanson and others have identified a ratio for positive to negative emotions: for each negative emotion you need three-five positive emotions to balance this out; in the workplace it's five and in relationships it's as high as seven! (Fredrickson, 2012; Hanson, 2015).

 

"Our negativity bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappointment and hurt." Rick Hanson

 

Our brains operating systems have two settings: responsive and reactive. In our responsive state, we rise to challenges, are un-phased by stressors and comfortably deal with threats, loss and rejection without getting caught up in the emotions and unhealthy behavioural patterns. We feel safe, satisfied and connected with others. Our parasympathetic nervous system is active, leading to the release of feel-good hormones, slowing our heart rate and lowering our blood pressure.

 

Then there is our reactive mode: the mode that evolved through our ancestors to help keep them safe when disturbed by threat (think lions, starvation and foe). The reactive mode disturbs the calming effect of the responsive mode, activates our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight centre), fires up our amygdala and releases stress hormones. This reactive mode that kept our ancestors alive lights up when our autonomy is threatened, when we are worried about money, feeling pressured at work or experiencing social pain.

 

Toggling between the two modes is typical, yet occasionally we can get caught up in the reactive mode, neglecting the need for recovery.

 

Over time our reactive system can place us into a state of sympathetic nervous system dominance which is similar to pouring battery acid on our brains (specifically the hippocampus responsible for memory and learning). Practices like 'taking in the good' and meditation can cultivate an environment in the brain and body for being more responsive.

 

By 'taking in the good' and/or meditating, a space is created between the stimulus of stress and our response to that stimulus. An individual can also equip themselves with positive mental and psychological resources that will contribute to their overall well-being.

 

So try it now... think of a moment that put a smile on your face recently, enrich it by staying with those feelings for 12 seconds.....and feel your body absorb those feelings from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.

That's it, that really is all there is to it. Next try it in the moment and over time you will find that you become more present in every moment, leading to you becoming a happier, more engaged, more resilient individual.

 

To take the positivity test go to: http://www.positivityratio.com/single.php.

 

For more information and resources from Rick Hanson visit his website here: http://www.rickhanson.net/

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