Negative Mental States Become Negative Neural Traits

1384355562150.cachedYour brain has a natural negativity bias, which means it’s always on the lookout for anything bad: potential dangers or losses.  This vigilance helped our ancestors survive because more reactive, nervous, and clingy animals had better chances of passing on their genes.

This negative hair-trigger still exists and can activate when we get stuck in traffic, rush to meet a work deadline, argue with our partner, juggle taking care of the kids while fixing dinner and talking on the phone, or read the headlines. So our brains’ negativity bias mostly leaves us anxious, stressed, and worried today.

When the slightest potential for trouble arises or the smallest thing goes wrong, your brain zeroes in on that one thing downplaying everything else. If you get a glowing performance review from your boss, you’ll focus on those few constructive criticisms. Even though a first date goes well, you’ll replay spilling your water at dinner over and over.

Your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive.  We recognize angry faces more quickly.  We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We over-learn from bad experiences and under-learn from good ones.   In your brain, bad overpowers good every time.  These negative experiences snowball making you more sensitive to the negative, and your brain becomes more easily alarmed and reactive.

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson writes, “One way or another, negative mental states can easily become negative neural traits.”  He continues:

…[F]eeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious cycle. 

The negativity bias affects the physical structure-building processes of your brain as negative experiences get stored in implicit memory.  Implicit memory is below conscious awareness and the basis for how you feel and function.  The contents of implicit memory have much more impact on your life than explicit memory, which is declarative knowledge and personal recollections.

Unless a positive experience is highly novel or intense, most good news has little lasting effect on the brain.  Hanson writes, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”  Even though the negativity bias is great for ensuring survival, it’s lousy at promoting happiness, peace, fulfilling relationships, and long-term physical and mental health.

OK.  So your brain is tilted against living happily ever after.  But, don’t despair.  You can put the odds back in your favor.  How?  The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to intentionally “take in the good.” Hanson gives detailed instructions on how to do this in his book.  (Read more here, Look For The Good And You’ll Find It, and watch for more on this in upcoming blogs.)

 

Happy Accidents

1538838_692221270798657_2050679928_nAs I sit perched at the start of a new year, I can’t help but feel curious, optimistic, and a little anxious all at the same time about the 365 days ahead.

Will this be the year I publish the book I’ve been giving birth to for over 3 years? In the upcoming 8765.81 hours, will I put down some roots for me and my furry family or move for the third time in five years?  After being single for 6 years, will I know the rush of falling in love in the next 31,536,000 seconds? Who knows?  I sure don’t, but I can tell you that I am open to possibility.

I’m not big on planning.  I do believe in holding loose goals, but I also believe that I have to remain flexible enough to respond to whatever actually arises along the way.  That means that sometimes I have to zig when I thought I was going to zag to reach a goal or even change the end goal completely as makes sense within the surprises of the unfolding reality.

I’ve learned never to judge a situation as good or bad when it first presents itself whether it’s getting a “no” when I wanted a “yes” or my landlord telling me they’re not renewing my lease.  The circumstances themselves are neither.  Whether anything is good or bad is determined by my thinking and how I manage and move through the situation. There is always a benefit or, at least, a lesson to be found in any situation if I look hard enough. Once I recognize the plus side of something that could have been viewed as a calamity, it becomes what my friend calls a “happy accident.”

Life has a way of bringing a lot of happy accidents in a short time sometimes.  I’ve seen the same friend meet the love of her life, get married, and open a yoga studio in little more than a year.  To do this, she had to move to a different state leaving friends, a job, and a home she had known for over a decade.  Another friend met someone, got married, had a baby, and started a business out of her home again in a little over a year.

I’m willing to bet that neither of them planned on the events that unfolded.  They stayed open and willing to work with what arose, welcomed it as if they had chosen it, and took the risks to allow the benefits to happen.  That’s the key to happiness and success in any situation in my opinion. Taking what is before you and making it work for you. (See blog: One little Question)

While I don’t see a wedding in my future – ever, I am willing to venture out of my comfort zone, take some risks, zig and zag, and see what happy accidents arise in the new year. Even if I don’t fall in love or publish a book, I will find joy in the everyday whether it’s a cat curling up on my lap, taking a nap in the sun, or a particularly yummy yoga class.  It’s up to me, and it’s all good. Let’s do this!

 

 

How Recognizing That Nothing Has Changed Changes Everything

images (12)While picking the dead leaves off of the geraniums on the front porch, I noticed something sticking out of the storm door.  It was one of those little pink slips from the post office, “We tried to deliver…”

Upon going to the post office to retrieve it, the man behind the counter hands me a letter from the IRS joking, “There’s hundreds of these back there.  Probably a refund.”  Right. It’s never a good thing to get a certified letter from the IRS especially in August.

Upon opening it, I find that, as expected, it wasn’t good news.  The IRS had determined that I owed money for miscalculating my taxes pretty substantially one year. Huh?  How’d that happen?

After pouring over copies of bank statements from that year, I figured out where the error was.  While the immediate amount due to the IRS wasn’t THAT bad, the error they cited had the potential to go back several years amounting to a lot more money.  Yikes!

It really wasn’t an error on my part.  It was a discrepancy in the way some monies had been classified by myself and another party.  Neither was right or wrong, we just had to declare the funds the same way and hadn’t.  Now the IRS wanted somebody to pay taxes on the money, and that somebody was me.

To make a long, complicated story short, at first, I thought my exposure was bad enough, but I could stomach it.  Then after speaking with a tax attorney, I found that, for some unknown reason, the first letter I received was supposed to be preceded by two other letters, to which I could have responded with an appeal.  But, by this communication, I had to either pay up or go to court.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, he projected that I could end up owing enough money to buy a small house before it was all over.  Holy shit!  I used to panic and freak out big time over this kind of stuff.  As a matter of fact in 2007, when facing many stressful life events all at one time, I tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills resulting in a serious brain injury and the loss of custody of my two sons.

In the years since, I’ve done a great deal of changing and growing through cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, meditation, coming into the present, and thought reframing.  But after receiving the letter from the IRS, I still had a night where I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing with anxiety. However, by using the mental health tools that I’d learned, I soon returned to balance and was OK with everything.

After meeting with the tax attorney and hearing his dire forecast, all I could do was sit on the couch watching episode after episode of Breaking Bad while eating potato chips topped with pickle slices.  I could get lost in the happenings on the screen and not think about money. When my mind ventured to the tax situation, I found myself visited by my old enemies: catastrophisizing, jumping to conclusions, and feeling that panicky, “must make it better right away” feeling.

Even with the financial woes, the scariest part, without a doubt, for me was not recognizing the person having these kind of thoughts.  I was beyond all of this.  Wasn’t I? I didn’t do this anymore.  I knew better.  Didn’t I?

Within 24 hours, I got out my mental health toolbox and started arguing with the destructive thoughts.  Coming back into the present, “Nothing has really changed,” I told myself.  The only thing that had changed was my expectations about how the future was going to take shape.  I would still be able to keep a roof over my head and pay my other bills although I was already thinking of ways to trim expenses and reduce my lifestyle.

After a sleepless night, my motto became “This isn’t what I wanted or what I planned for, but it’s what’s here, and I’ll make it work. I’m going to let things unfold and respond to what happens as it happens.”  While still feeling the fear of the unknown but also a sense of faith in myself and the universe, I just hoped like hell that I could make good on that thought.  I was proud of myself because, while I did spend a day acting like someone I didn’t recognize, at least, I didn’t wig out.  That’s what I call progress.

And, sure enough, wouldn’t you know it.  The very next day, I consulted another lawyer who, being more familiar with my personal situation, clarified everything, and I was back to owing the original money.  Whew!  Funny how that amount didn’t seem bad after thinking I was going to owe ten times that.

When you find yourself in unfortunate circumstances and start to go down that “woe is me” road, my advice is to allow yourself to feel your feelings authentically without judgement – for a while.  Be pissed off.  Have a TV marathon.   Eat a pint of Haagen Dazs. BUT, don’t allow yourself to stay in that place.  Before you’re into the third bag of potato chips or the tenth hour of TV, take control of your mind and thoughts.  Choose your reaction.  Consciously choose your response to the situation.  Realize that you’re alright right now and that, in this moment, nothing has really changed  - which will change everything.

 

 

Look For The Good And You’ll Find It

happiness-640The dishwasher overflowed last night, you woke up to a kitchen floor full of suds and were late to work.  You found out two days ago that the mole on your Dad’s ear was malignant. A monster typhoon slammed into the Philippines and left 10,000 dead.

It seems that every where you turn these days there’s more than enough stress, chaos, and bad news. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and just flat-out disgusted with it all. How do you find the good, happiness, and joy in the midst of so much bad?  You have look for it, notice it, and take it in.  That’s how.

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson explains that our brains don’t automatically recognize the good for two reasons.  First, there isn’t a stimulus to catch your attention usually in something good.  There’s no threat, no fear, nothing to make your brain take notice.  Your brain doesn’t automatically note all the bad things that didn’t happen. Second, through a process called habituation, your brain filters out things that don’t change whether it’s the refrigerator’s hum or, thankfully, the routine absence of disasters in our daily lives.

While habituation is an efficient use of neural resources, it causes a lot of the good that’s around us all the time to go unnoticed. According to Hanson, to counteract the brains’ natural tendency, we have to look for, put emphasis on, and create good experiences.  To do this involves becoming aware of what good is present in your life and making the thought an embodied experience accompanied by good feelings, sensations, desires, and actions.

Hanson’s not talking about making anything up here.  He only asks that we see what’s true and already there and shift our perspectives.  This doesn’t mean denying the bad realities.  It means choosing to focus on the facts that could yield a good experience.

hardwiring-happiness-cover-198x300Hanson writes:

Often we see a good fact but don’t have any feelings about it.  This seemingly small step – from idea to embodied experience – is critically important, for without it, there’s not much to install in your brain.  In terms of building neural structure, what matters is not the event or circumstance or condition itself but your experience of it.  

So how, exactly, do you do this?  You take in the good by noticing a positive that is already present or creating one.  He suggests finding good facts in your current setting, recent events, ongoing conditions, personal qualities, the past, and the lives of others.

You’re alive.  You ate today.  The sun is out.  That trip to the beach last summer was awesome.  You exercised yesterday.  You have always been a hard worker. You’re smart. You earned a college degree and nabbed that award at work last year. Your cousin just had a healthy baby boy.  These seemingly small, but good things can be turned into embodied experiences by tuning into your body and allowing yourself to really feel the positive emotions and sensations accompanying the thoughts.  It’s important to follow through on any positive actions that might occur to you with the events.

Good facts are around us all every moment of every day.   Even “bad” facts often contain seeds for good experiences.  You have to intentionally look for the good in the bad. What lessons did you learn?  Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?

Sometimes, it’s impossible to find good or create a good experience. You might be in terrible pain, have suffered a tremendous loss, be buried in depression or in a panic. That’s OK.  That’s being human.  With compassion for yourself, accept where you are, ride out the storm, and look for the good when you can come up for air.

After a suicide attempt years ago, I was left seriously brain injured and lost custody of my two sons who moved to a different state with their father.  As part of my emotional recovery in the years that followed, I HAD to consciously look for the good around me because there wasn’t much readily apparent anymore.  At times, I had to get out the magnifying glass, but good was ALWAYS still there.  I just had to notice it.  The sun warming my cheeks as I walked the dog on a chilly morning; the silkiness of the cat’s fur as I scratched her rumbling chin with her curled up on my lap; a really good tune playing on my iPod were the smallest of joys, but joys nonetheless.

Noticing the good has become an invaluable staple in my mental health tool box. It’s a choice, costs nothing, and anyone can do it anywhere at any time. With practice, making a conscious effort to notice the good and internalizing it becomes a habit making it easier to activate and maintain a positive state of mind even in the midst of chaos or upsetting events.  Over time, the practice actually changes the neuronal structure of your brain hardwiring it for happiness.

Look for the good, and you will find it.

Brain Food For Better Memory

Improving your memory is about making sure to use your brain, and the foods you eat can go a long way in helping your brain work its best for you. There are many different foods out there that can boost your cognitive ability, and just as many foods (and beverages) that you should avoid if you want to stay sharp for years to come.

Fish

download (1)Over the last decade, the ability for DHA, a protein that is found in fish along with other omega-3 fatty acids, to improve memory and overall brain health has been proven with astounding results. One of the best sources of DHA is fish. Whether you choose salmon, mackerel, tuna or others, please be aware that many fish contain unsafe levels of mercury, a poison that interferes with brain function. Sardines and rainbow trout are also great sources, but these should be checked before consuming as they often have a high salt content.

Other Brain Foods

Aside from omega-3 fatty acids, it is important to consume foods that contain antioxidants and Vitamin E. (See a detailed list here.) Foods that are high in magnesium can also help when it comes to memory loss both now and in the future. Some great choices include blueberries, apples, bananas, avocados, eggs, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, dark green vegetables and more. In fact, these foods should make up the majority of your diet along with whole grains, plenty of water, and tasty treats in moderation.

Avoid Fast Food

While it may seem silly to consider the correlation between fast food and your brain, one certainly exists. Fast food is incredibly high in salt, saturated fats and calories; this combination can lead to coronary artery disease – and quickly, at that. When the arteries become clogged due to the overconsumption of fats, the heart cannot pump as much blood throughout the body. This means that your brain has a decreased oxygen supply, cells start to die, and memory loss becomes a serious issue.

Stay Away from Soda

Most everyone enjoys a soda now and then, but there are far too many of us who choose a sugary soda (or even its diet counterpart) over the healthier beverages that we should be consuming. For the brain to work optimally, it needs a steady stream of glucose, or sugar. When you consume soda after soda, your brain is overwhelmed with refined sugar and cannot function correctly. Similarly, when the sugar is all processed in the body, you might experience what is known as a sugar ‘crash’. Diet sodas do not contain sugar, but the artificial sweeteners in them have been linked to memory loss in various studies.

Eat Whole Eggs

images (3)A great addition to your diet is choline, a substance that is found in high concentration in eggs and beef liver. Eggs are the better choice because they contain healthier fats than beef, and the amount of choline they contain is enough to produce a noticeable difference. Being high in cholesterol, whole eggs should be consumed in moderation. Five to six eggs per week is considered a moderate, healthy amount that can provide you with enough choline to boost both your short-term and long-term memory.

Try Dark Chocolate for a Quick Boost

Believe it or not, if you’re feeling particularly forgetful at any time, chocolate may be able to provide you with a quick memory boost. Of course, milk chocolate is packed with sugar and fat so it is best that you stick with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate varieties that contain at least 80% cacao contain antioxidants and other substances that go to work in the body immediately to help boost brain performance. In fact, studies have proven that college students who consumed a regular-sized chocolate bar prior to taking an exam scored better than their peers who did not consume chocolate prior to testing.

Improving your memory is about much more than the foods you eat; it is also about the ones you choose to avoid. There are many unhealthy food choices out there that can actually have a serious impact on your brain, but the good news is that with a few simple lifestyle changes and the incorporation of healthy foods into the diet, these effects can be reduced.

This is an article written for The Best Brain Possible by Pete Galigher.

 

Better Brain, Better Life

JC_ShadowSummit_Final-2-700x1024If you stop to think about it, your brain is involved at some point in absolutely every thing you do.  Every breath and heart beat.  Every smile and tear.   Every word and thought. Then, it would stand to reason that a better brain equals a better life.

Your brain running smoothly is probably something you take completely for granted and never give a second thought.  For most of our lives, the brain just hums along in the background, like a well-oiled machine, doing it’s thing, making everything else work right….until it doesn’t anymore.  Then, believe me, you really notice.

In his book, Shadow Summit, Jon Chandonnet tells of being twenty-seven with the brightest future ahead of him.  Ready to graduate from MIT with a Master’s degree, he was athletic, ambitious, smart, and strong when a doctor handed him the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.

Ignoring his condition as much as possible for as long as possible, Jon ran marathons, climbed mountains, launched a career in the high pressure software startup industry, and eventually became a husband and father.  Instead of pursuing a lifestyle that supported his brain health, it was as if he pushed himself hard enough, Jon could continue to believe there was nothing wrong with him. Jon was determined to live a life, in denial.  And he did, for a while, but the MS caught up with him.

After quickly deteriorating to the point where he could barely work or take care of himself, this hard-core left-brainer began to look for answers and alternatives not being offered by traditional medicine.  Educating himself and becoming more conscious and intentional, Jon learned about and implemented diet, exercise, emotional, and spiritual practices which allowed him to reverse his symptoms and create the vibrant, authentic life of his dreams.

Similarly, my brain injury, resulting from a pill popping suicide attempt, forced me to make major lifestyle changes, which I could have made earlier under less duress (believe me, it would’ve been much easier!), to recover.  Educating myself about neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change structure and function based on behavior and thought, and devising my own rehabilitative therapies while making brain healthy dietary changes and incorporating exercise, yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices, I recovered fully as well.

You can live a busy life dictated by the “shoulds,” trying to achieve the “American Dream” that we’re sold, but it will eventually cost you in one way or the other in the form of mental or physical health.  Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

What Jon and I learned on our journeys, he sums nicely up on his website:

  • I have the power to change my life by changing my thoughts, actions, habits, and desires to live in harmony with my well-being.
  • My body is programmed for health. If I clear out the junk, put in the right stuff (food, water, air, thoughts and emotions), exercise and stimulate it—health and well-being prevail. 
  • My thoughts and actions in the here and now are critical determinants of my reality and my destiny.
  • Changing course in life takes courage, strength and endurance, but over time, thought by thought, action by action, inertia can be over-come and a new path forged.