How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain to be Calmer and Happier

Your brain is neuroplastic which means it changes its physical form and function based on the input it receives over your lifetime. Your experiences, behaviors and even thoughts literally shape your brain. (For an in-depth explanation of how this happens read here.)

The adult brain is not quite as malleable, and neuroplasticity is only dialed back on when specific circumstances are met. Your brain can and does change at all ages – whether it’s to your benefit or not. In Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, I write:

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change structure and function based on input from repeated behaviors, emotions, and thoughts is an empowering truth of the last decade with far reaching implications and possibilities for almost every aspect of human life and culture. However, this same characteristic, making your brain amazingly resilient, also makes it very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. In his book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge calls this the “plastic paradox.”

Harnessing the same neuroplasticity which allows bad habits to be carved into your brain also gives you the ability to etch good-for-you habits in your brain and change your life for the better.

Three Core Needs of Your Brain

According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., in his book Hardwiring Happiness, your brain has three core needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection.  As the human brain evolved, it developed three “operating systems” to drive humans to meet these basic needs.

  • The avoiding harms system is linked to the brainstem, the oldest branch of the vagus nerve, the parasympathetic nervous system, and to the vertebrate stage of evolution. Hanson suggests that you think of this as your lizard brain.
  • The approaching rewards system is linked to the brain’s subcortex, the sympathetic nervous system, and the mammalian stage of evolution. You can think of this as your mouse brain.
  • The attaching to others system is linked to the frontal cortex, the most recent branch of the vagus nerve, and the primate stage of evolution. You can think of this as your monkey brain.

Hanson writes:

Today, the three operating systems — avoiding, approaching, and attaching — use your brain as a whole to accomplish their aims; they’re defined by the function they serve, not by their anatomy.  While these functions are rooted in ancient biological imperatives,–swim away from a predator, eat a carrot, make a baby — they play out today in ways that would astonish a caveman…

This sounds complex, but daily life is full of simple examples. Imagine going out to see a friend for dinner. On your way to the restaurant, you avoid harms such as running a red light. Once you sit down at your table, you approach rewards like something good to eat. As you talk with your friend, you feel more connected, more attached to him or her.

Your Brain’s Responsive and Reactive Modes

The three operating systems in your brain pretty much run the show, by directing your experience and motivating your behaviors. Each system has essentially two settings: responsive and reactive.

When your core system’s needs are adequately fulfilled and you feel safe, satisfied, and connected, your brain rests in responsive mode. In this state, you may experience alarm, challenges, and hardships, but you meet them with an underlying sense of security without too much stress and return here after. For health and happiness, you want your brain’s default to be a responsive state.

Hanson calls this the brain’s “green zone.” In the green zone:

  • Your neural networks are no longer in a state of deficit or disturbance.
  • Your hypothalamus becomes less active.
  • The green brain is contagious to others around it.
  • The responsive brain is the foundation for healing, health, and happiness.

As you can probably guess, a reactive brain is in the “red zone,” which is the opposite condition. The reactive brain served an important purpose for your ancestors and evolved to keep them alive, by avoiding threat, loss, or rejection. In the red zone, the brain’s amygdala sounds the alarm causing the hypothalamus to release stress hormones.

It is the natural biological rhythm for animals’ brains, including humans, to spend most of their time in a responsive state. Your brain has an innate negativity bias, always running in the background, looking for signs of danger, which may necessitate short bursts of reactivity, as needed. These episodes are supposed to be infrequent and end quickly…and did for our ancestors, one way or the other… with a return to the responsive baseline soon thereafter.

All too often these days, life keeps your brain stuck on red. While people aren’t usually faced with the threats of raw survival requiring the bursts of reactivity of our ancestors, your brain can stay in a continual state of reactivity due to everyday stressors. Today, your brain goes red because of your partner’s snappy tone, a big deadline at work, or the electric bill that just arrived in the mail.

In the red zone:

  • Your long term health is not your brains’ priority. Your survival is.
  • The amygdala activates the hypothalamus and sends the sympathetic nervous system into hyperarousal. Adrenaline and cortisol levels rise.
  • Your immune system is put on hold.
  • The red zone feels bad because it IS bad – unhealthy, negative, and a precursor to problems, like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD.

A Simple Practice to Get Your Brain in the Green Zone More 

In the wild, regular physical activity cleared cortisol out of the body. Our sedentary lifestyles keep the cortisol circulating – which only makes us more reactive. Our consumeristic societies keep us continually chasing a reward. We are bombarded with shocking, scary news stories every day. All of this keeps your brain on high alert in the red zone.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson proposes that you turn your brain’s negativity bias into a responsivity bias with the simple practice he calls “taking in the good.”  Hanson writes:

Taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory. It involves four simple steps (the fourth one is optional.) The first letter of each step forms 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.

Enrich it.

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.”

Absorb it.

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, the practice of repeatedly taking in the good physically changes your brain, through neuroplasticity, by strengthening pathways for a more responsive, resilient default mindset. Your happiness becomes increasingly unconditional and not dependent on external circumstances.

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