The phone rings – again – just as you are starting to make progress on that project that’s been hanging over your head all week. It’s that boss (or coworker or client or customer) who just won’t leave you alone. You curse and answer with an abrupt, impatient “hello?”
Your chest feels tight, your breathing gets short and shallow, and your heart races. You’ve been triggered, ambushed by the primitive part of your brain known as the amygdala that generates a fearful response.
This primitive “reptilian” part of the brain evolved to keep us safe and helped our ancestors avoid jaguars, bears, poisonous snakes, and other dangers. But in the early 21st century, we face countless circumstances each day that can set us off in a cascade of emotional reaction, all based on a perceived threat.
Overstimulation of this region deep in your brain has been linked to persistent anxiety. The added stress is bad for your physical health, disrupts your productivity and creativity, and can harm your relationships.
We are all wired differently when it comes to the sensitivity of our amygdala. Some of us are more calm, laid back, and easygoing, while others are driven and more of a Type A personality. We also differ in our degree of negativity bias – our predisposition to focus on the negative over the positive.
This is why if you get a negative piece of feedback you ruminate on it, while paying little attention to the positive feedback you get. Your brain naturally defaults to focus on what’s wrong (or perceived to be wrong) rather than what’s right. What if you could reverse that default and consciously ruminate on the positive?
We have evolved to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. That’s just the way Mother Nature made us so we could survive. But regardless of our disposition, we don’t have to live with the brain we were born with. We can train our brain to work around the default and create new patterns. We can remap our minds for greater resilience, happiness, and empathy. One of the best ways to do it is by consciously practicing gratitude.
Gratitude is closely linked to our sense of well-being, and a strong determinant of how resilient we are in the face of adversity. And one of the coolest things about gratitude is the way that the very act of looking for things to be grateful for attunes your brain to the positive.
Expressing gratitude reduces toxic emotions, diminishes depression, and increases happiness, according to studies by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. It calms your amygdala, enriches relationships, and it feels good.
So how can we use gratitude to overcome fear, negativity, stress, anger, anxiety, and all those other pesky problems generated by an overactive amygdala? In his book “Hardwiring Happiness,” Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains how to use “positive neuroplasticity” to remap our brains so we can feel more calm, content, and confident. And we can do it by weaving gratitude throughout our daily experience. Here are some examples:
- Instead of walking around your house looking at the mess your partner left, look for something that reminds you of how you appreciate them.
- Instead of criticizing your kids, find ways to celebrate their strengths.
- When the phone rings and you feel at the end of your rope, consider that your boss, coworker, client, or customer is calling because they need you and your help.
Practicing gratitude can be a form of meditation – one that attunes your brain to the positive. Here’s my formula for putting the power of gratitude to work in your life:
Step 1: Look for it. Take a few moments throughout each day to identify things, people, and circumstances in your life for which you feel grateful.
Step 2: Savor it. When you have what I call a “delicious moment” that sparks gratitude, take a couple of deep breaths and focus on experiencing that moment and feeling.
Step 3: Express/communicate it. Expressing gratitude is contagious, and increases dopamine and serotonin for both the person giving and receiving the feedback. It’s an easy way to give another person a lift and lift your own spirits in the process.
Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools to help you rewire your brain. Many people think meditation is supposed to be this calming, Zen experience. That’s not necessarily the case. It can be a lot of work and can feel frustrating because your mind continually wanders. But each time you come back to your focal point (usually your breath) you are training yourself to control your attention, rather than let it control you.. While it takes practice, controlling your attention helps reduce rumination, making you less likely to hit the panic button. So the next time you feel triggered, you don’t get stuck in a never-ending cycle of rumination because you have learned to focus your mind where you want it to go, and not where it gravitates naturally.
You don’t have to live with the brain you were given. Depression runs in my family, so my natural set point is probably more pessimistic than somebody who has a different genetic background. But just because that is the case doesn’t mean I can’t change it.
It doesn’t matter what your genetic set point is; it doesn’t matter what emotions come naturally to you. What matters is how you choose to interpret them. You can remap your brain to start looking at your life through the eyes of gratitude.