Getting stuck in negative mental ruts is painful and distracts from what’s good in life.
Challenging situations are mentally sticky and hard to shake. They easily start to colour our lives and we can become resistant to seeing what’s good in life. Our brains react strongly to what’s unpleasant. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson from UC Berkeley coined the phrase, “our brains are Teflon for what’s positive, and Velcro for the negative.”
The brain’s tendency to over-emphasize what’s challenging keeps us stuck in a constant state of stress, and we can feel victim to life’s challenges. It’s called the inherent negativity bias, the tendency of our minds to pay more attention to danger.
Research shows it takes five positives to off-set one negative criticism in healthy relationships. The same is true for life’s experiences. We’re biologically wired to pay more attention to what’s challenging, or negative; it’s a safety mechanism for survival, but we’re overusing it.
When stuck in a negative mental loop, our bodies quickly follow suit, as shots of stress hormones circulate. It doesn’t matter if challenging situations are currently happening, or coming from memory; our bodies react as if we’re faced with the threat in the present moment.
It’s challenging to switch gears once we’ve rehearsed a negative mental loop because neurons, or brain cells, that “fire together, wire together” according to Hanson. Each time we practice a mental thought, negative mental connections become stronger.
This easily colours our perspective on life, and we can become negative, cynical, or pessimistic. We start to view the world darkly, seeing only what’s bad, experiencing irritation and frustration at every turn, as the storehouse of negativity grows more quickly than what’s good.
We don’t have to be victim to our negative thoughts, and with practice we can change the landscape of our minds. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can change our set-point for happiness.
It’s not about trying to ignore or suppress what’s difficult, it’s learning to use what’s good in our lives to consciously change our brains. In the shadows of life’s challenges, we often miss seeing what’s good. We can learn to look for what’s good, and allow it to serve us to restructure our brains for happiness and a more balanced perspective. It’s not about being Pollyanna, but using life’s simple pleasures to restore our balance and reduce our suffering.
Hanson created a simple yet effective practice, with the acronym of HEAL, that helps change the neural landscape of our brains, allowing us to consciously create more connections for what’s good.
1. H—Have and notice good experiences that, in reality, are happening all around us. These can be happening in real-time or be retrieved from a memory.
2. E—Enrich the experience, savour and expand it.
3. A—Absorb it. Allow yourself to drink-in the good feelings of the experience for 5 to 20 seconds. This is important as it allows the expansion of the feeling.
4. L—Linking it to a moderately challenging experience is an optional step, in which we flip back-and forth between savouring the good, and what’s been mildly challenging.
It benefits us to intentionally stimulate positive feelings. The longer we hold the positive in our awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it is, according to University of Toronto researcher Marc Lewis.
When we consciously prolong our experience of positive things, it starts to change our ability to take in the good, anchoring our positive response.
The fourth step of linking is optional, and isn’t required. It’s beneficial though, because when we practice linking the challenging with the good, it allows what’s painful to be infused with feelings of peace and comfort, and reduces the suffering created by challenge.
The more we allow ourselves to take in the good, the more effective we become in navigating what’s not. Practicing HEAL doesn’t have instant results. As Hanson says, “it’s the law of little things,” and the cumulative effect of practice creates positive change. New positive neural connections develop over time.
You can begin the practice right now, and repeat it periodically throughout your day. What’s something good in your life right now; think of a compliment, kind word, or sweet success.
Take a few moments to bring one to mind and fill in the details. Make it big and spend some time savouring it.
Here’s to your health and happiness.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.