All of us are striving to grow the good inside ourselves but how can we be more effective at it? For this blog I want to focus on giving you the how to’s and hopefully give you a better understanding of why these how to’s work. Now when I say good, I am referring to a “state” that makes us feel good, for example, I want to be more grateful, I want to be more calm, I want to be more happy, I want to be more resilient or I want to be more tolerant of pain.
In order to achieve more “goodness” we need to change our nervous system and brain. The only way to change the nervous system and brain is learning and practice. When it comes to these structures, there is no short cut. To become more compassionate, grateful, resilient, etc you need to repeatedly “install” these experiences into the brain.
Firstly you need the experience. Then you need to make the experience “stick.” Experience alone is not enough for your nervous system and brain to change. You must learn from the experience and I will show you how. This is how neuroplasticity works. Neuro meaning the nervous system and plasticity means the ability to learn/change.
Let’s talk a bit more about how to make experience “stick.” This is called the installation phase. Let’s say you have a thought of gratitude (the experience), it is not enough to just think it to become a grateful person. The experience is necessary but not sufficient for change. A thought of gratitude cannot be generalize to other aspects of your life. So, in order for change to occur you need to learn from that experience and then practice it during alternative experiences.
Before we can get into cultivating the good we need to know what we are up against, and that is the negativity bias.
Over the 600 million years of evolution of the nervous system, avoiding danger and death was more important than the gratification of finding food or a mate. For example, if you did not find a carrot today, it’s okay because you will have a chance tomorrow however, mistaking a deadly snake for a stick, there is no tomorrow. This negativity bias was very useful for our survival but in modern times it can become a block to living that “good” life.
So let’s break down how the negativity bias works,
- We are always scanning for bad news, in the environment, in the body and in the mind
- We over-focus on it. If one red light is flashing amongst 100 green lights, we tend to focus on that one red light (tunnel vision)
- We over-react to it: Our reaction is more intense to a negative situation/ feeling than a positive
- We efficiently install it in memory: It is easier to remember a negative thing versus a positive thing. For example 9 great things happen and one bad thing. Which is the thing you are thinking about just before falling asleep? What do you remember most from that day? I bet it’s the more negative thing.
- We then sensitize the brain to the negative: Because negative experiences typically create stress, there is a release of cortisol (stress hormones), which over time causes the alarm bells to ring inside the brain every time cortisol is released, even though we may not even be experiencing a negative moment.
- We then create vicious cycles with others: moderate/severe stress can impact how we react/interact with others
So what does this all mean? And why is it important?
Well, we have a brain that is designed to over-learn from negative experiences and under-learn from positive experiences. Dr. Rick Hanson, the psychotherapist that presented this information says, “Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good”. It is important to be aware of the negativity bias to realize when you may be stuck in it and that if you want that “good” life you have to combat it by practicing the “good.”
Ok. Enough already. Just get to the ‘how to’ part. Here it is.
Dr. Rick Hanson, presented the HEAL acronym:
H: Have a beneficial learning experience. This is the activation phase for the nervous system and brain. For example, during yoga class you feel really calm (the experience).
E: Enrich: This is part 1 of the installing phase. You want to keep the experience big and lasting. You can do this by spending some quiet time or journaling your experience and by asking yourself a few questions. What was new about this experience (brain loves new), what was exciting about this experience, why does this experience matter to me. It’s about savouring the moment and opening up to the richness of the experience.
A: Absorb: This is part 2 of the installing phase. We need to sensitize our brain into making memories of the good. Imagine this phase like a sponge absorbing water. You can do this by asking yourself what was rewarding about this experience and allowing that feeling to sink into your body. When you focus on the reward and enjoy the experience, you release dopamine, which makes us feel even better. Dopamine is also a chemical that helps the brain flag this type of experience as good and will therefore help the brain store it, so that you will want to have another experience like this.
L: Linking (this is optional, but I think an important one for those in pain). When we are in pain, sometimes it is difficult to see progress. The negativity bias wants to over-focus on the pain, blinding us from other more positive experiences. For example, you have pain in the shoulder that may not have changed but you can move your arm further than before and can do more before pain stops you. We often see improvements in function before the pain starts to decrease. So…this phase is about linking positive with negative, because over time the positive experience takes over that negative one. I call it, celebrating the small victories. It turns the focus onto the positive accomplishments and increases motivation to continue doing the things that will make you better.
Reference: Rick Hanson, PhD. The “Green Zone” Brain. Presented at the 2017 Neuroscience Training Summit.