In my last post I wrote about our hardwired propensity for amplifying the bad and why it’s especially important for those living with chronic illness to stop dwelling on the negative.
We tend to fast track any difficulty right into our brain system and use that experience to color in the background of our lives. It’s not a character flaw, or a negative temperament – it is the way our brains evolved.
But we can change that.
My client Sami and I started to create a pool of resources that she could use to help her mind re-direct her brain.
We began with the reality that most good experiences are registered on the “mild” end of the spectrum A bit of morning sunshine, the scent of the herbal tea she enjoys, her cat beside her calmly sleeping, a hot shower. These are all positive, but they become routine, and hardly noticeable as the day unfolds.
By contrast, Sami had the habit of reaching for her phone and turning on the news as soon as she woke up. Both had potential to fill her mind and heart with difficult or upsetting information. An early email from her boss, news of another disaster – any of that could hijack her mind to ruminate on the next problems.
Sami realized she needed to shift how her day started if she wanted to build a positive mood and safe calm place for her mind to rest.
She began to experiment with not looking at her phone until breakfast. She created a brief routine for noticing the good first thing as she woke up.
She did a body scan and looked for places where her body felt ok. When she found some places, she paused, and allowed herself to really feel how good her legs felt, how relaxed her neck was, how clear here eyes seemed. She stayed with the exercise for 20 seconds.
Then she got up slowly, and thought of three things she was especially grateful for as she began her day. Again, she dwelled on the particulars of her gratitude, and she worked to find fresh or new things each day.
We used several important realities for this routine.
First, even though most positive experiences are small and ordinary, we can increase their potential to support us by experiencing them, not just running through the idea of something positive.
Turning the thought of the positive into an experience that can be felt, makes them much more potent to affect our mood.
Second, the brain loves novelty, and routine or habit only strengthen the Teflon nature of the good. I encouraged Sami, and I encourage all of us, to vary what we do to experience the good. Take a different route into your day; eat something new, like a splurge on raspberries or a delicious new granola. Sit by a different window, bring a beautiful leaf or flower indoors and let your eye rest on it. The pleasures are small, but when you introduce something novel, the brain pays more attention.
Finally, one of the most important aspects of this is to practice. It seems so simple – almost to the point of simplistic. But it makes a difference when we are consistent and stick with the potential that “installing” the good experiences can shift what our mind rests on, and thus shift our brain and our mood.
Sami found herself waking up slightly calmer and slightly happier after about two weeks of steady practice. It was a big change for her – and one you can make too!