Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago living in small hunting-and-gathering communities. Because they rarely ran into other bands of people and it was often dangerous when they did, their brains learned to be anxious when encountering unfamiliar faces. They had to deal with the hardships of starvation, parasites, sickness, injury, predators, harsh environmental elements and more on a daily basis just to see the sun the next morning.
To survive, their brains developed a prickly awareness: always on the lookout for danger, zooming in on any potential threat, being super sensitive to painful experiences and burning them into memory and reacting quickly physically without thinking first. Back then, this negativity bias did help keep your ancestors alive. Animals that were nervous, cautious and clingy were more likely to live to pass on their DNA.
This hair-trigger still exists in your brain today but as you can imagine, doesn’t do you any favors. You may notice it in the back of your mind as an unexplained persistent feeling of unease on a sunny day when everything is going well. It may be responsible for you not being able to let go of that remark made by your boss yesterday which, in the overall scheme of things, wasn’t that big of a deal. It might be why you got cussing mad when you were cut off in traffic. It’s why the media bombards you with bad news. And it may be why so many people are anxious and depressed.
How You Get A Reactive Brain
In your brain, bad trumps good every time because of this negativity bias. Your mind gives more importance and reacts more intensely to unpleasant experiences than to pleasant ones. Studies show that people will do more to avoid a loss than win an equivalent gain. Relationships need five positive interactions to balance out one negative.
When you experience one of these daily annoyances, your brain’s amygdala, the fear center, reacts as if you were being chased by a lion, activating your fight-or-right response. The amygdala sends alarm signals to your hypothalamus and your sympathetic nervous system, causing cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine and other stress hormones to be released. The amygdala also alerts your brain’s hippocampus, largely responsible for memory, to prioritize the upsetting event for storage.
Over time, negative experiences pile up and condition your amygdala to become progressively more sensitive. Feeling stressed, anxious, negative or angry today leads to being more inclined to feel that way tomorrow and so on. The cortisol in your brain overstimulates, weakens and eventually kills cells in your hippocampus, shrinking it. In addition to assisting with memory, the hippocampus calms down your amygdala and tells your hypothalamus to quit producing stress hormones.
These biological tendencies are further amplified by other factors, like personality traits and traumatic life experiences or circumstances.
What A Responsive Brain Looks Like
Your brain has essentially two settings: reactive and responsive. As long as your core needs are being met, your brain should default to a responsive mode, in which it’s safe, relaxed, calm and peaceful. In responsive mode, you can experience gratitude, joy, contentment, or connectedness and are capable of intimacy, kindness, compassion, and love.
In Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, by Rick Hanson, he refers to this as the “green’ setting of your brain. A reactive brain is on “red.” Hanson explains:
In responsive mode, you meet challenges without them becoming stressors. Events occur, even hard ones, but there’s a kind of shock absorber in your brain that stops them from rattling you. You deal with threat, loss, or rejection without getting carried along by feelings of fear, frustration, or heartache. You’re still engaged with life, and sometimes handling very difficult things, but on the basis of an underlying sense of security, fulfillment, and feeling cared about.
In other words, when your brain is not disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection. Neurochemical systems involving oxytocin and natural opioids, regions such as the subgenual cingulate cortex, and neural networks such as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) initiate and maintain this balanced, sustainable, homeostatic condition.
How To Build A Responsive Brain
When our primate ancestors lived shorter lives in constant danger, having a reactive brain made sense. Today, in safer conditions with people living much longer, the costs of a stressed out, reactive brain outweigh the benefits. Hanson says:
In effect, one of the brain’s major design features for passing on genes is now a design flaw, a ‘bug,’ in the twenty-first century.
So what can you do about it?
Hanson proposes that we develop what he calls “a responsivity bias” by intentionally internalizing positive experiences into implicit memory. Hanson calls this “taking in the good.” It’s a four-step process with the first letter of each step forming the acronym HEAL.
Have a positive experience.
Notice a positive experience in the present or create one. You can do this by becoming more aware of your current setting, recent events, or ongoing conditions, the people in your life, tuning into your body and inner speech, and thinking about or imagining positive memories, emotions, and actions.
This requires that you deliberately apply your attention to the positive experience and sustain it. Stay with and breath in the good feeling. Give the experience a label such as “calming, relaxing, or safe.”
This step heightens the installation of the good experience by prolonging and intensifying neural activity which builds neural structure. This involves sensing or visualizing that the good is sinking into you like a gentle rain or rays of sunshine. If taking in the good is like building a fire, step 1) is lighting it, step 2) is adding fuel to keep it going, and step 3) is feeling its warmth.
Link positive and negative material.
Hold both positive and negative in your awareness while keeping the positive more prominent. For example, feel a positive emotion while feeling a negative emotion simultaneously in the background. Know that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Over time through neuroplastic change, the practice of taking in the good will strengthen and form neuronal pathways to build a responsive brain evident by a more optimistic and resilient mindset. With conscious effort, you can override nature to give your brain a positive slant and find happiness.