Hopper: The benefits of choosing rose-coloured glasses
Choosing to focus on the positive aspects of life can seem very difficult when we are constantly faced with challenging situations.
What also makes this particularly difficult is that as human beings, our brains are actually hard wired to focus on the negative aspects of life due to our instinctual survival mechanisms.
For example, let’s say you are hiking up a mountain on a beautiful sunny summer day.
There are beautiful flowers on one side of the path and a snake on the other side. Which one do you think you would be focused on?
Of course, you will naturally notice the snake as it is a potential threat. Your brain is hard wired for protection and is constantly scouring your environment to ensure your safety.
And equally if you are paid twenty compliments but someone mentions one criticism you will remember the lone criticism. Detecting negativity is just the way the brain works by default.
So if we are naturally hard wired to focus on the negative then it makes common sense that it may take some concerted effort on our behalf to focus on the positive aspects of life.
However, this does not mean living a life in denial. It’s perfectly OK to allow yourself to process emotionally challenging situations.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a renowned neuroscientist and best-selling author who had to rebuild her brain after a stroke, came up with the 90-second rule.
Allow yourself 90 seconds to dive into your emotional suffering. Rant, rage, cry or journal to move the energy through you, and then move on and focus on something that is life affirming.
Of course each situation is different and may take numerous attempts to clear.
Normally it only takes 90 seconds for stress hormones to regulate after we experience a negative feeling.
However, if we continue to entertain the same thoughts that are stimulating the same emotions, then we get stuck in the same physiological negative response cycle like a hamster on a wheel.
If we stay in a particular negative thought or emotional state for too long, the brain strengthens the corresponding neural circuits, and this has very real adverse effects on our physiology and state of health.
In a recent brain study of teenage girls that were prone to depression, researchers from Stanford University discovered that the amygdala—a part of the limbic system that fires when feeling threatened—was over reactive which caused the subjects to be more sensitive to various negative stimuli.
Through use of a functional magnetic resonance machine to measure brain function along with mindfulness training, they were able to demonstrate to the subjects how to change brain function.
When experiencing a hyper reactive negative state, the subjects were asked to visualize an emotionally charged positive memory, like petting a puppy.
This effectively dampened the threat response in the brain which had real physical affects on the physiology of the body.
The intent of the research is to prevent depressive episodes though giving the girls the tools that they need to rewire the depressive circuits in the brain.
What was equally surprising is that they noticed that many of the subjects were able to make changes in brain structure and function in less than one week.
The personal commitment to consciously notice the positive aspects of life requires us to become aware of our natural default state and consciously shift our focus.
The commitment to this practice can be a daily, hourly and moment by moment discipline.
However, improving your brain function, overall quality of life, your health and personal level of happiness makes it all worth the effort.
Annie Hopper is a limbic system rehabilitation specialist.