How to Rebalance Your Brain in 3 Easy Steps
One of the most powerful resilience-building, Balancer-enhancing strategies is to consciously look for growth opportunities in experiences – to seek the silver lining in the cloud.
Looking for the growth opportunity in the struggle makes it possible for us to find it. Difficulties become, as a friend of mine puts it, “just an AFGO – Another F***ing Growth Opportunity.” Thinking of struggles as AFGOs allows us to accept, in a tongue-in-cheek but still meaningful way, that positive change can emerge from negative experiences.
When we go through difficult times asking questions like “What can I learn from this?” and “How can going through this make me a better person?” we gain leverage on our problems, and it becomes much harder for UnBalancer to unseat us. Instead of being knocked off course, we see obstacles as challenges and grow more resilient by overcoming them.
A close cousin of the AFGO is learning to condition our minds to pay equal attention to the positive.
Neuroscientists have determined that our brains contain twice as many cells that respond to threats as they do cells that process positive experiences, and that these threat-detecting cells respond about 10 times as quickly. Consequently, a stimulus we perceive as threatening has a disproportionately strong impact. Powerful experiences form much stronger memories, and the repetition of stronger responses and more vivid memories of perceived threats creates a cycle that reinforces a negative bias.
Our negative bias was once essential for survival. All protohumans could safely eat something that tasted good and could ignore the movements of familiar creatures. But if something tasted rotten, only those who immediately spit it out were likely to escape food poisoning, and only those who responded swiftly to a rustling in the brush avoided being eaten by predators. Our negatively biased early ancestors survived to produce offspring, while those who failed to react quickly enough to possible threats didn’t make it.
Our modern brains respond similarly to those of our ancestors. We, too, immediately sense when something tastes off, but we can eat an entire meal without even realizing we’ve consumed it. And we, too, quickly react to our modern-day predators – other drivers – but can miss our turnpike exit when we are lost in thought or absorbed in music or conversation.
Were it limited only to quick responses to actual threats, this negative bias would still serve us reasonably well as an aid to survival. The problem, however, is that our negative bias also makes it difficult to fully take in the positive aspects of our much safer world, and it can prevent us from fully enjoying it. If a toe hurts, we may not notice that we are otherwise healthy. If we suffer a loss, we can lose track not only of all we still have, but also of what we are continuing to receive. Our hard-wired, “better safe than sorry” bias often contributes to low-level pessimism. Even when things are going well, we may think, “Things are okay now, but wait until the other shoe drops.”
To recalibrate our brains, we need to update our programming to take into account the relative safety of our present surroundings. By training ourselves to pay as much attention to the positives as we do to the negatives, we can rewire the brain to have a more positive, and more satisfying, bias.
The difference between a negative and a more balanced bias came to me most clearly during a brief conversation with one of the monks who led a Buddhist retreat I went to many years ago.
We sat together on a hillside overlooking the dining hall and ate our lunches while I talked with him about feelings of hurt, betrayal, and despair that followed the difficult ending of a long relationship. My UnBalancer was having a field day with the attention I’d been giving these events and the injuries that resulted from them.
“I understand your feelings,” the young monk said, “but this way of looking at love is too limited. You think it comes only from these people, and now it is gone. But love comes from many places.” He held out his sandwich. “The baker who made this bread shows us love. Yes, it is his business, but the bread is very good and there is love in it. And there are the trees and the grass. They give us oxygen – without them we could not live.” He looked up at the sky. “And the sun gives us warmth.”
As he continued to point out human and non-human sources of love, I felt a shift inside. Until that moment, the idea that “the universe loves us” had seemed so abstract it was meaningless. But now, listening to this young man as he took in the love of the cosmos, I vicariously experienced his gratitude, and I carry these feelings with me to this day.
Because it goes against the grain of our innate wiring, watering the seeds of a more balanced bias takes work – but it’s worth the effort. Simple everyday practices can help. We can start to focus only on eating our food instead of looking at social media or the newspaper while we dine. We can turn off the radio on a long trip and experience the world we’re passing through. We can pause long enough, when we receive a compliment, to let the positive feedback settle into our being. Small changes such as these help us to move beyond the programming that our ancestors evolved in their more hazardous world so we can thrive in the one we live in now.
What to do:
- Smell the roses. Eat the raisin. Literally. Negative stimuli hit us 10 times as fast and twice as hard as positive ones. To even things out, take the time to fully absorb the things that taste or smell good, feel nice, sound pleasing. Literally take in the smells of flowers, fragrances, foods. Pay attention to the sound of a friend’s laugh. Feel the textures of the objects you touch throughout the day – a partner’s skin, the glassy screen of your smartphone, your own hair. An exercise: Eat a single raisin as slowly as you can. Feel its texture, notice its color, smell its scent, and chew it slowly until it liquefies, savoring the flavor and the mouth feel. Then try this again, but with something in your refrigerator.
- Look for the growth opportunities in everything. See difficulties as teachers. Whether we like it or not, all difficult experiences can become AFGOs. Develop the habit of evaluating the growth opportunities in everything that comes your way. The path from victim to victor is through seeking out and embracing opportunities for growth. Crazy traffic on the commute to work? A learning opportunity for patience. An illness that could be serious? An opportunity to learn to deal with uncertainty. An annoying co-worker who can’t stop talking? Another opportunity for learning patience – or for honing your assertiveness skills. And so on, with experiences from the most trivial to the most challenging.
- Create gratitude lists. Frequently. Grateful people are generally more satisfied with their lives and relationships, cope better with difficulties, and are more generous, empathetic, and self-accepting. A simple but effective tool for promoting a grateful perspective is the gratitude list. It’s a way to reinforce the reality that whatever we may lack, we also have many things for which to be grateful. We may not have all the wealth we want, the health we want, the relationships we want, the things we want, but when we list what we do have, we have a lot. When you make a gratitude list, be open to including anything at all that you feel grateful for. A 50-item gratitude list I created for a chapter in my book Paths to Wholeness starts with “Being alive” and ends with “Popsicles!”
COMING NEXT: How to Boost Connections and Support
P.S. Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:
Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
The Bookshop, 40 West Street, Beverly Farms, MA 01915
Boston Public Library (main branch)
Brookline Public Library (main branch)
NOBLE Public Libraries (Beverly Farms and Salem)
MVLC Public Libraries (Hamilton-Wenham)
Please let me know if you find it in other libraries!
The Under Toad and the UnBalancer
The Balancer/ReBalancer Tag Team
A Mini-Lesson on Mini Self-Care
Gyroscopes and Personal Flywheels
Hanging in the Balance
Balancing the Books
How to Design an Experiment
Build Your Resilience in 6 Steps
How to Rebalance Your Brain in 3 Easy Steps
From Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
“At times I still hover at the threshold of positive change, uncertain which way to go. Yet I also continue to deeply sense parts of myself that have been waiting for a lifetime to be listened to and acted on. When these parts awaken from their slumber, the effect is as breathtaking as the sun rising on a new day.”
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52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)