A new book is always a pleasure for me. It is even better when the book has practical research-based insights that can help me and my clients.
Rick Hansen’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, arrived in the mail, and after devouring it and then going back and reading it again, I am ready to share some of his most useful findings with you and my clients.
I told you about a client who was learning to savor good experiences. There are significant reasons why that matters – especially when you live in the midst of bad experiences like ongoing pain, and other symptoms that come with chronic illness.
Hansen describes the neurobiology of our brains as “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.”
We evolved our brains to pay more attention to the bad than the good. Survival depended more on avoiding the bad (tigers, aggressive neighbors, and starvation) than enjoying the good. Paying attention to the berries you found was less important than being mindful that a predator might be lurking. Our brains developed to be always on alert, scanning for difficulty and problems, and that scanning mechanism exists today.
How often have you wondered “well, that was ok, but when will the next shoe drop? “ “What fresh hell is waiting for me?” Most of us can’t really allow ourselves to notice, let alone experience the good, because we are biologically primed to be looking for the bad.
And how much more is that true if the negative experiences in your present life outweigh the positive. A vicious cycle gets started, most often without our conscious consent because we are predisposed to take in, and overlearn the bad news in our lives, and let any good news go past us like the wind.
But here is the good news that Hansen wants us to hear and use.
Our brains are also designed to learn and change. The brain may have predispositions, but it is also a dynamic organ. Think about that again – our brains are designed to change because of what they learn.
We have some control over what our brains are learning. We know that without giving our brain any direction, it will tend to focus on problems, and scan for more difficulties – anything that would make us unsafe, or dissatisfied, or alone. The brain will take in whatever is around – bad news on TV, a scary word from our doctor that keeps echoing, a negative experience with a family member or co-worker – anything in our experience that might frighten or unsettle us gets replayed with a feeling of “Danger!”
But when we consciously use our minds to direct and deepen our attention, we can begin to shape our brains in a different way. We can begin to take in and install a calmer, more receptive, confident state of being.
This is imperative news for those who live with illness and all the uncertainty that comes with it. When we are in pain, or legitimately fearful of what may happen next – more pain, more difficult symptoms and consequences, and worst of all, no way to know what the next things may be – then this innate tendency to Velcro the negative gets amplified.
My client Sami told me she could not stop thinking about what might happen to her next. She had a diagnosis of RA and was being treated with medications that controlled her pain, mostly, and she was mostly mobile and living her life. But she said at night she would wake up at two and begin to rehearse what might go wrong – and worry how she would deal with it. She said, “I just can’t top thinking about it.”
Her brain as running on autopilot, and she couldn’t connect with another state of mind to help her.
Together we began to build a resource center from which she could draw to re-direct her attention when she noticed herself dwelling on a negative.
In my next post I will describe some of the resources we gathered, and in the meantime, I invite you to notice how your own mind operates. Does it tend to rest on bad news, fueling that negativity in your brain? What good news or positive experiences are you having, and how do you attend to them to help tilt your brain towards safety and comfort?
And if this intrigues you, I do invite you to get a copy of the book!