Knowledge of the Brain Helps Balance your Moods
Moods are tricky. Some come and go quickly, like irritation with your gum-chewing co-worker. Others are more obstinate, like anger toward your nemesis who sabotages you to make you look bad. Overwhelming emotions also cause depression or other uncomfortable mental states.
Would you like to learn techniques that can help you avoid emotions' all-consuming potential? Here's help. A fascinating book, Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson, PH.D., and contributing author Richard Mendius, MD, explains some of the complexities of the brain.
Their foreword states, "Buddha's Brain is an invitation to use the focus of your mind to harness the power of attention to enhance your life and your relationships. Synthesizing ancient insights from contemplative practice with modern discoveries from neuroscience, (the authors) have assembled a thought-provoking and practical guide that walks you step-by-step through awakening your mind."
They start with some basic facts about the brain:
- It weighs approximately 3 pounds with 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons, each receiving about 5,000 connections or synapses from other neurons.
- Neurons communicate with each other. When a neuron fires, it sends signals to other neurons through its transmitting synapses telling them to fire or not.
- Typical neurons fire 5 - 50 times a second.
- Neural signals contain bits of information, mostly outside your awareness. Your nervous system moves this information around like your heart moves blood, regulating everything from your stress response to your personality tendencies.
- Your brain is only 2% of your body's weight, but it uses 20 - 25% of its oxygen and glucose; so eat more healthily, since your diet also fuels your brain.
The authors compare your busy brain to a refrigerator: always humming away, performing its functions. Brain research has exploded in recent decades. And much of the discoveries teach us how to activate brain states that bring about healthy mental states, allowing you to influence your own mind and mood through:
- Regulation: Your brain regulates itself and its bodily systems through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights.
- Learning: It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones.
- Selection: It selects whatever experience has taught it to value: e.g., even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid electric shock.
These functions operate at all levels of the nervous system and are involved in any important mental activity.
Daily Brain Training Practice is Required to Change Moods
Brain training can help diminish what haunts you mentally and cultivate better moods. To make progress, you must stop:
- Regretting the past;
- Worrying about the future;
Both of these are beyond your control. Instead, deal with your present reality. Brain training teaches you how to shape your present reality to influence your future. For instance, you want to stop a defensive reaction to someone who hooks you emotionally:
- When with this person take a very deep, slow breath and exhale more than you just inhaled, which triggers the relaxation response (the calming parasympathetic nervous system). It allows you to "choose" a more appropriate and hopefully calmer response. It won't guarantee you'll actually change your defensive reaction but it facilitates the change if you want to badly enough.
Or, when reliving an upsetting experience, like doing poorly in an interview:
- Identify the uncomfortable feeling (incompetent);
- Identify how you want to feel for your next interview (competent);
- Recall an experience when you felt very competent and successful. Relive the positive experience for several minutes. Allow the image to sink into every part of your mind and body. This gradually permeates the upsetting memory with a positive feeling.
Another small strategy done often can gradually lead you to better mental states:
- Deliberately extend feelings of happiness, which increases the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, helping your attention stay focused.
Hanson reports doing little things like this daily, month after month, changes your brain "from the inside out." To be successful you must be kind to yourself and forgiving of whatever created the emotional states that inhibit your happiness.
Accept the fact that your only influence is in the here and now. Any blaming, complaining, worrying or regretting only reinforces the moods you want to change, making them more difficult to alter.
Brain Notices the Negative More than the Positive
Making this even more difficult is how the brain, for survival reasons, has a negativity bias because survival is most impacted by negative experiences. For example, ancestors who sometimes failed to find food or a mate had other opportunities later. But failing to notice a predator meant death, with no chance of eating or mating again.
Those who survived to pass on their genes paid great attention to negative experiences. Your brain spots negative information faster than positive information (e.g., fearful facial expressions - a key indicator of danger - are perceived much more rapidly than happy or neutral ones).
Hanson writes, "Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones." That's why in relationships it generally takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of one negative exchange (Gottman 1995).
This built-in negativity bias generates suffering and inhibits changing by:
- Creating an unsettling background of anxiety, which can be very intense;
- Inhibiting an anxious brain, which busily scans for threats, from turning inward for self-awareness;
- Intensifying unpleasant emotions, like anger, depression and guilt;
- Emphasizing past losses and failures;
- Downplaying present abilities;
- Overstating future obstacles;
Additionally, Hanson reports you have blind spots in your visual fields. These don't appear to you as blank holes because your brain fills them in, like photo software. Much of what you "see" is produced in your brain. Only a small amount of inputs to your occipital lobe comes from the external world.
The rest comes from your internal memory and perceptions. You live in a virtual reality that's close enough to the real thing, allowing you to function while also creating discord. Did your colleague just insult you, or was it your imagination? Normal brain functions often exaggerate what you believe to be true.
You can diminish the suffering of your negativity bias by understanding its existence and its normalcy. To diminish anguish and to improve your mental states, increase mindfulness.
- Mindfulness: the conscious use of attention to your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you focus on, increasing mindfulness can help you spotlight and internalize good experiences.
Cultivate Positive Experiences to Rewire the Bad Ones
Just as the food you eat builds your body, your experiences construct your mind. Most of this mind shaping is unconscious. It's called implicit memory. Your beliefs, models of relationships, emotional tendencies and general attitudes display your implicit memories and create the backdrop of your mind - "what it feels like to be you," Hanson explains.
This accounts for your automatic, defensive reactions to people. For example, your spouse upsets you. But she may only have triggered an implicit memory of yours from long ago that was somewhat similar to the present situation.
Your brain then automatically re-created the same past upsetting emotion in the present, making your spouse seem at fault. This is also called projection.
The authors divide implicit memories into two categories:
- Those that benefit you and others;
- Those that cause harm;
Remember your brain's negativity bias: it looks for, notices and remembers unpleasant experiences. Dr. Hanson says, "Emotional pain with no benefit to you or others is pointless suffering. And pain today breeds more pain tomorrow." His remedy is not to suppress negative experiences but to cultivate positive ones.
Absorb them so they become a permanent part of you. Good things happen everywhere but often go unnoticed. Even when you take note of something positive (e.g., accomplishing a goal), you may not feel the associated positive emotion. So:
- Consciously look for the little and big good events around you, like a beautiful sunset. Truly notice and spend time appreciating it in detail. Let the positive emotions sink in.
- Relish the experience of a good event by focusing solely on it without distraction for 5 - 20 seconds; the longer you consciously focus on it the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire and wire together, creating a stronger memory (Lewis 2005).
- Focus on your emotions and body sensations, the essence of implicit memory. Feel the experience of watching the sunset enter deeply into your mind and body, like the sun's warmth penetrating your clothing. Relax your body and absorb the emotions, sensations and thoughts of the experience.
Focus on the rewards of the experience; appreciating nature lowers stress. This releases dopamine, which makes it easier to continue focusing on the experience, strengthening its neural association in implicit memory.
You can also intensify an experience by deliberately enhancing it. For example, when savoring the experience above, call up other feelings of being loved. These help stimulate oxytocin, the "bonding hormone", and thus strengthens your sense of connection.
Doing this daily slowly rewires your brain to eventually automatically notice and appreciate more of the positive, gradually moving the negativity bias into the background and the more positive moods into the forefront.
Understand how "Childhood Hangover" Emotions Continue to Control
To keep painful "childhood hangover" emotions from complicating your life, accept the fact that automatically triggered emotions have less to do with your present situation than you assume. Also, accept:
- Automatic emotional reactions to stressors come from the primitive part of your brain. To minimize them you must rewire your brain, requiring ongoing practice.
- No one else can make you feel any emotion. You choose, albeit usually unconsciously, how to respond, largely based on your ongoing beliefs and how your brain was wired early on.
For example, you're impatient with a co-worker, but why? Your answer indicates the belief that drives your emotional reaction. "I'm impatient because she's an incompetent moron!" But her behavior doesn't upset you. It's your "moron" label that triggers your emotions.
To change your emotions, change your answer to "why?":
- Use alternative explanations: what else could explain her behavior? She's not trained well enough or she's dealing with a huge stressor and isn't thinking clearly. Identify at least three alternative explanations, which don't have to be accurate.
Just notice how each influences your emotions. This proves her actions don't cause your upset. Your story explaining why she acted as she did does.
Here's another technique to change your emotional reaction (e.g., impatience) to how you'd prefer to respond (e.g., patiently):
- Recall for several minutes an experience from your life when you were very patient, noticing how your body felt.
- Imagine this when you're feeling impatient and notice your annoyance diminish, gradually moving patience to the forefront of your mind and impatience to the background.
A variation on this skill:
- Imagine the same impatient situation but respond with another emotion, like sadness. The point again is to prove that what you focus on changes your inner emotional landscape.
Calming yourself always helps expand emotional balance:
- Create distance between yourself and your difficult emotions by practicing equanimity. This doesn't mean being apathetic or indifferent; but rather being engaged, yet not troubled. Imagine the contents of your brain coming and going in a vast open space and accept:
- Feelings are just feelings;
- People are just being people;
- Thoughts are just thoughts;
- Boundless space surrounds them, dwarfing them;
Increasing equanimity helps engage your brain's anterior cingulate cortex, which:
- Integrates your thoughts and feelings;
- Gathers information for problem solving;
- Is the primary overseer of your intentions, guiding your intentions and actions;
In situations that trigger unwelcome emotions:
- Consciously state your positive intent repeatedly. Before you're with the person who triggers your impatience say to yourself, "I'm patient with her and listening to her."
Your survival system is both a blessing and a curse. The curse sets you up for a negativity bias. But the blessing is it's possible to rewire your malleable brain to serve you better.
About The Author
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S. For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, workplace harassment, motivation, and communication skills. Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs.
Jackie is also a Stress & Wellness Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. Order her 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple and request her weekly, published, emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper, at www.letyourbodywin.com. You can now follow Jackie on Twitter (JacquelynFergus@Twitter.com)