This is Your Brain on Contentedness

It’s automatic, isn’t it? We screw up something and then mentally flog ourselves for it. We create all kinds of conversations in our heads to prove how horrible we are. We magnify our mistakes.

Everyone does this.

But what if that automatic response is something the brain does because that’s how our neural pathways have been trained? What if we could re-train ourselves to react differently?

Advances in neuroscience have shown that our feelings and which region of the brain is active are related. Your situation or circumstances are secondary to how your brain responds.

What’s happening in the brain?

When we feel threat, the part of the brain that lights up is the survivor brain. Threat comes from everywhere: mistakes, negative interactions, from the world political arena. Everywhere.

The survivor brain is the most primitive part of your brain and includes the brain stem and limbic system. Those threats trigger your fight, flight, or freeze reaction. That triggered brain state releases stress hormones into your body, including cortisol, and you are now hyper-vigilant, looking for anything else that can go wrong. It narrows your focus to danger only.

Since you’re now hyper-focused on finding the metaphorical attacking lion around every corner, all you’re able to see are threats. The brain has essentially created a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you see confirms what you expect to see.

But, when we are feeling content and thriving, a completely different set of neurons in the neo-cortex lights up. Positive emotions release dopamine and serotonin; that helps you feel good. They also stimulate the learning centers of our brain, helping us to organize, store and retrieve new information.

And, this positive brain does exactly the same thing the stressed brain does – it looks for evidence to support the state that it’s in. In other words, it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and reinforces your positive state.

So how do you shift from one to the other?

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall – Practice, Practice, Practice.

You already know of the benefits of meditation, but that is sometimes difficult. Although sitting and focusing on your breath is simple, it’s not always easy. So here is an easier brain exercise:

Stop and notice in the moment how your body is responding to whatever is going on for 10 seconds. Close your eyes and focus on your body. Feel your feet on the floor and your butt in your chair. How’s your heart rate? Are you hungry? Can you feel the blood coursing through your veins?

10 seconds is only three breaths.

Like doing only one pushup, though, it will take a long time to reinforce a positive automatic response if you do this only once a day, so practice many times during the day. 10 times an hour! 100 times a day!

This. Will. Retrain. Your. Brain.

It won’t end stress. Life provides a steady dose; it always has. With practice, though, you can shift your habitual response.

I’d love to hear your experience of this – post a comment and tell me what happens for you!


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