7min readSelf 17 June 2019
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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Starting with a little background, I am an anti-bullying advocate and have recently graduated from The Parent Leadership Training Institute, where as part of our studies we were asked to come up with a community project close to our hearts and put it into action. My cause was bullying, and I began a blog and Facebook page to address issues pertaining to all forms of bullying. Implementing this project was followed by a thre- minute speech to my peers, and, after all this, here is what I have learned about bullying.
Bullying makes people feel bad about themselves, leading to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and even physical symptoms. The repercussions of bullying can cause people to miss school or work as well as countless other negative side effects.
I have been bullied both at school and at work, and I know of others who have suffered the same plight. It is not fun!
My first bullying experience was in seventh grade as a young teen. There was a group of three "mean girls" who harassed me and, I later found out, several of my friends; they thought it was funny to pick on others about their clothes, their looks or whatever else they could come up with (who knows). It felt awful at the time. Supposedly, I was chosen to get picked on because they claimed I bought my clothes at the Goodwill. That wasn't true, but really who cares? Why they were picking on me was never really the point. Luckily, after a while, the meanies went on to the next victim(s) like a never-ending cycle. I tend to think once a bully, always a bully, which goes to show how good a lifestyle that is, because those "mean girls" never amounted to much. In hindsight, I feel sorry for them. Watch the movie The Gift if you're really curious about what happens to bullies when they grow up.
And bullying was not just an issue when I was a teen, since then nothing much has changed. My own nephew was bullied in eighth grade, and he recently talked to me in depth about of how the bullying took a toll on him. Especially because I had the same experience, I could relate to him in ways that some others couldn't. Like reliving my own memories, I was incredibly broken up to hear how it made him feel.
Even worse than that, bullying does not end in the school yard. Employees are being bullied on the job at an alarming rate. When you are bullied on the job as an adult, it taken an even bigger toll. Further it doesn't just go away like those middle school "mean girls." Unless you can quit your job, you might just be stuck. There are all kinds of physical symptoms, stomach pains, migraines and even panic attacks. Beyond the physical, people's mental and emotional state is extremely sensitive to bullying, and as a result work performance might suffer. Furthermore, it might feel like there is no recourse, no one to believe you. You can hope that the HR Department is willing to listen and do something about it, but the whole process can be so disheartening. And in the hierarchical corporate environment, sometimes the bully seems to get ahead and you are left lagging behind in a subservient position. This is what happened to me as a victim of workplace bullying. It started with me being told by a co-worker that my boss was following me to the bathroom, staring down the hall whenever I left my desk to make sure I came right back to my seat. Then it was standing over me as I typed, ordering me to get in a car with them, not allowing me to sit somewhere if it wasn't within their sight. The list of offenses could go on endlessly. There were times I felt like I couldn't breathe. And then, the bully torturing me got a promotion. Like the character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, the classic bully is revered by her peers, despite the fact that all of her employees are terrified of her. Yet, she is in a role of high stature and praised as a bully. We live in a culture that is not only complacent in the existence of bullies, but one that actively allows them to thrive.
It makes you realize how unfair life can be. Of course, no one said that life would be fair; maybe you just assumed that bad people would not get ahead. But, they do. Even now, I cannot help but to shake my head in disbelief. I often wonder what makes a person feel the need to laud their power over another. Are they insecure? Were they bullied themselves? They must feel bad about themselves in some way? Do they feel the need to do this to make themselves look good? Whatever the reason, it certainly isn't nice at all. I have found myself at different times in my life standing up for people who have been bullied around me. And I certainly do not allow anyone to treat me in any way that I find disrespectful. I truly believe in karma, and I tell myself that at some point in time, the bullies will get it back in some way. I have seen it happen, and in the meantime, I just say to myself "What goes around, comes around."
Bullying shows no sign of slowing down, and in this day and age, it's even worse than I have experienced in the past. Cyber bulling, rumors, fist fights, knifes, guns and other forms of both mental and physical cruelty, it truly sickens me. I know that I cannot save everyone, but I try to be an advocate as much as possible and encourage others to do so as well. NO ONE SHOULD BULLIED! It is disgraceful to say the least. You should always practice grace as much as you can. With every person who chooses to do so, the world gets a little bit better. I will be writing more on this topic on a regular basis; I feel it helps to talk about this subject aloud and spread the word. and, if nothing else, be kind.