The phone rings – again – just as you are starting to make progress on that project that's been hanging over your head all week.
It's that boss (or coworker or client or customer) who just won't leave you alone.
You curse and answer with an abrupt, impatient "hello?
Your chest feels tight, your breathing gets short and shallow, and your heart races. You've been triggered, ambushed by the primitive part of your brain known as the amygdala that generates a fearful response.
This primitive "reptilian" part of the brain evolved to keep us safe and helped our ancestors avoid jaguars, bears, poisonous snakes, and other dangers. But in the early 21st century, we face countless circumstances each day that can set us off in a cascade of emotional reaction, all based on a perceived threat.
Overstimulation of this region deep in your brain has been linked to persistent anxiety. The added stress is bad for your physical health, disrupts your productivity and creativity, and can harm your relationships.
We are all wired differently when it comes to the sensitivity of our amygdala. Some of us are more calm, laid back, and easygoing, while others are driven and more of a Type A personality. We also differ in our degree of negativity bias – our predisposition to focus on the negative over the positive.
This is why if you get a negative piece of feedback you ruminate on it, while paying little attention to the positive feedback you get. Your brain naturally defaults to focus on what's wrong (or perceived to be wrong) rather than what's right. What if you could reverse that default and consciously ruminate on the positive?
We have evolved to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. That's just the way Mother Nature made us so we could survive. But regardless of our disposition, we don't have to live with the brain we were born with. We can train our brain to work around the default and create new patterns. We can remap our minds for greater resilience, happiness, and empathy. One of the best ways to do it is by consciously practicing gratitude.
Gratitude is closely linked to our sense of well-being, and a strong determinant of how resilient we are in the face of adversity. And one of the coolest things about gratitude is the way that the very act of looking for things to be grateful for attunes your brain to the positive.
Expressing gratitude reduces toxic emotions, diminishes depression, and increases happiness, according to studies by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude. It calms your amygdala, enriches relationships, and it feels good.
So how can we use gratitude to overcome fear, negativity, stress, anger, anxiety, and all those other pesky problems generated by an overactive amygdala? In his book "Hardwiring Happiness," Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains how to use "positive neuroplasticity" to remap our brains so we can feel more calm, content, and confident. And we can do it by weaving gratitude throughout our daily experience. Here are some examples:
- Instead of walking around your house looking at the mess your partner left, look for something that reminds you of how you appreciate them.
- Instead of criticizing your kids, find ways to celebrate their strengths.
- When the phone rings and you feel at the end of your rope, consider that your boss, coworker, client, or customer is calling because they need you and your help.
Practicing gratitude can be a form of meditation – one that attunes your brain to the positive. Here's my formula for putting the power of gratitude to work in your life:
Step 1: Look for it. Take a few moments throughout each day to identify things, people, and circumstances in your life for which you feel grateful.
Step 2: Savor it. When you have what I call a "delicious moment" that sparks gratitude, take a couple of deep breaths and focus on experiencing that moment and feeling.
Step 3: Express/communicate it. Expressing gratitude is contagious, and increases dopamine and serotonin for both the person giving and receiving the feedback. It's an easy way to give another person a lift and lift your own spirits in the process.
Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools to help you rewire your brain. Many people think meditation is supposed to be this calming, Zen experience. That's not necessarily the case. It can be a lot of work and can feel frustrating because your mind continually wanders. But each time you come back to your focal point (usually your breath) you are training yourself to control your attention, rather than let it control you.. While it takes practice, controlling your attention helps reduce rumination, making you less likely to hit the panic button. So the next time you feel triggered, you don't get stuck in a never-ending cycle of rumination because you have learned to focus your mind where you want it to go, and not where it gravitates naturally.
You don't have to live with the brain you were given. Depression runs in my family, so my natural set point is probably more pessimistic than somebody who has a different genetic background. But just because that is the case doesn't mean I can't change it.
It doesn't matter what your genetic set point is; it doesn't matter what emotions come naturally to you. What matters is how you choose to interpret them. You can remap your brain to start looking at your life through the eyes of gratitude.
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Dating. Divorce. Marriage. Being single. None of it is easy.
I don't think any of us have the right answers or know exactly what we are doing when we navigate through relationships or breakups, even if we do take every Buzzfeed quiz there is out there. What I have found out though, is by writing this book, Female. Likes Cheese. Comes with Dog: Stories about Dating, Divorce & Saying "I Do" most everyone can relate to some part of it, whether it is having an awkward date, being dumped, or falling in love. The short stories read as if we are talking over drinks at a bar gossiping about our love life. It's as if, you, reader, are one of my best friends. I hope by reading this book you are reminded that you don't have to be anybody but you and your mistakes are simply memories to learn upon. Get comfy, grab a glass of wine (or your beverage of choice), cuddle with your furry companion (pet or otherwise), and enjoy…
From the chapter "Kansas & The Firepit" from Female. Likes Cheese. Comes with Dog: Stories about Divorce, Dating & Saying "I Do"
I had lost my dog to my ex. I was a mess. I thought this man was going to be by my side the rest of my life, I had gained a lot of weight. Not the kind of weight you gain when you tell your friend "OMG, Kelly, I, like, put on five pounds this summer because of all the partying I've been doing at the rooftop bars," but real weight. The weight that makes you feel totally inadequate. The weight that makes you say, Hey I might as well keep eating because it doesn't matter anymore. I was inconsolable during that summer.
I still wasn't completely out of my trash TV and alcohol phase, but I had switched to vodka, at least. Which, let's be real, just hides the fact that you're an alcoholic. I wasn't really talking to anyone about my problems. My mom tried to take me to fat camp. Yes, fat camp. When your mother says the reason why you're not happy is because you're fat, there comes a point where you really don't know whether to laugh, cry, or drink. I think I did all three. The reason why I wasn't happy was because I was going through a divorce, and my life was unraveling. I was not only unhappy but also fat, so I guess there was some truth to that. It was just what I needed to hear to get myself back to reality.
While cleaning the kitchen one day, I walked by a pair of boxing gloves. Boxing was something I had always been interested in. Watching it on TV and having some friends that had done it professionally, I figured I would take the plunge and put this "body after breakup" into motion.
There was only one boxing club in our area for fitness. I walked into the afternoon classes knowing that I was going to be a little out of my element, but I'm not afraid of a challenge. I'm an outgoing person and being sports savvy, I knew that I would catch on quickly. The guy teaching the class, Kansas, was very attractive. Ladies, you know how in yoga when you have to do the sun god pose? Well, let's just say he was what you would hope a sun god looked like. With sweat glistening down the side of his face, it was almost as if the ceiling parted and angels started singing as he stood over you telling you, "Ten more!" as you got down for ab rounds between punches. This guy was exciting. He was energetic. He was. . . constantly checking on me during class to make sure my form was correct, since I was new, and let's face it—I was totally OK with the attention. After class I signed up for a one-year membership and became addicted, not just because I loved the workouts but also because of the hot trainer.
I started coming to class three times a week, initially taking only Kansas's classes, but not wanting to look obvious when I really started crushing on him, I had to mix it up. I mean, this is Crushing 101. This was my first crush out of the gate post-divorce, so exactly what you think would happen, happened. Kansas became my rebound guy. I would make any excuse to linger after class (which, looking back, just made me look desperate), but then sometimes I would switch it up and leave. I mean, it was a game. I was trying to figure out if he was interested or not. It was exhausting. After talking after class for a few weeks, I happened to mention a home improvement project I had been thinking of working on. Being the good listener (stalker?) that I was, I knew he just happened to be interested in home improvements, as he did many of his own. I figured that would be a great way to get to know each other better and for him to fall completely in love with me, of course. Duh. Now I had a reason to cross something off my "list". I love sitting outside and having a glass of wine and listening to music by a fire. I wasn't really sure how I was going to accomplish this task on my own, but recruiting a fine gentleman like Kansas would be a good start. So, he agreed to my firepit project, and after gathering supplies at Home Depot, he came over, and I quote to you from my journal, I kid you not:
So today he shows up, and we are in the backyard digging the hole, and he takes his shirt off. His body is a wonderland! I mean sweat is just glistening down his torso. So I had to change the subject somehow and shut my gaping mouth, so like an idiot I say, "Oh, look, a callus on my hand," and he says, "Those on a woman are sexy." FML.
Ladies and gentlemen, do you want to know what I did that day? Something so adult and so mature: I pushed him into the dirt. I pushed that beautiful body into the dirt. I couldn't take it. I was like a schoolkid on a playground. Because that is the type of tantrum this lady used to throw. Kansas took it as flirting. I took it as frustration, because I couldn't tell a boy I liked him at the time.
This whole awkward flirting game went on for a few more weeks. Kansas would come over, and we'd dig more holes (to bury my dignity in) or set stones—I don't know. I thought rebound guys were supposed to be fun, casual things, but this wasn't fun at all. This was like homework in school. Every day I'd come home from "class," and I'd strategize on what I needed to do to make better "grades." If I had actually spent half the time in real school that I spent on Kansas, I would've had a 4.0. I was having to chase him, but I almost didn't know what race I was running. After all, I hadn't dated since 1884. So I figured if the firepit thing didn't work, then I'd write him a poem... Like a moron...