For most of us, our minds run the show: we operate from our brains down, in a continual state of either ruminating about the past or planning for the future. It’s how our brains are literally wired: to scan for threats and find the “problems” in order to protect ourselves.
However, what this means is that we have a scientifically proven “negativity bias”: it takes several positive experiences to make the same impression on our nervous system as negative experiences. The data makes sense > for our ancestors, it was far better to see a tiger in the grass that wasn’t there than to not see one that is there.
The first mistake can be made endlessly; the second mistake can only be made once! 🙂 That predilection for scanning for danger and searching for what’s wrong vs. what’s right has been passed down to us, creating a survival framework that makes it very hard for us to be happy.
Additionally, our culture supports this brain tyranny, with old aphorisms such as “mind over matter” and the belief that our bodies are weak, helpless blobs while our brains are infallible leaders, not to be questioned.
Thankfully, modern science is proving this arrogant stance wrong, demonstrating that what we think of as “brain tissue” can be found in our gut and other parts of our bodies.
Recent research shows that not only are our bodies innately intelligent, the dance of mind-body-emotions-consciousness is so interconnected that the various pieces often can’t be isolated.
What does all of this have to do with self-care? I’d like to offer a protocol to learn how to work with the brain’s negativity bias.
There is so much amazing research about the subject of neuroplasticity, I’ll keep it brief and leave the juicy details to the experts! One great book to get you started is “Hardwiring Happiness” by Dr. Rick Hanson.
One simple self-care practice you can use to remap the brain’s circuitry towards contentment is to try the following with difficult thoughts or feelings:
1. accept > instead of pushing uncomfortable brain buzz away, lean toward it: sit with the thoughts and feelings that are making you squirm. See if you can increase your tolerance for sitting in your own discomfort.
The greater your bandwidth becomes to handle that intensity, the more you’ll be able to think in the midst of it: taking responsibility for your part in a conflict while leaving others free to do the same… acting instead of reacting… etc…
2. is there a message? > often, the things in our minds that we want to push away because they make us feel yucky serve an important purpose. Take a moment to inquire if it’s a messenger and how it might actually serve you.
3. find a happy thought > if you’ve created adequate space for the first two steps but the negative brain buzz doesn’t dissipate or unravel as the message reveals itself, it might just be your mind’s negativity bias trying to dominate the show! You’ve already leaned into it with respect; now try leaning away from it by introducing a thought that makes you happy.
It could be anything; but as long as it lights you up from the inside, it counts! Let that thought turn you on, surf that joyful energy for as long as you can – and when the wave of the spark crests, find another happy thought to surf, and so on…
4. find something else to focus on > sometimes, our ego is so insistent on finding fault and scanning for trouble, that we simply can’t make the good thoughts stick! Or we run through our gamut of inspiring ideas and are still feeling funky. As a final solution to “sticky brain”, try focusing on something other than your thoughts and feelings.
It could be the hard plastic of the steering wheel in your hands – the pressure of your foot on the gas pedal – the sensation of the clothes on your body – the sound of crickets coming in through the windows – the smell of the coffee in your mug next to you… try finding something interesting enough in your experience to take you out of the dominance of the thoughts and feelings.