I have to admit, the past year and a half has been challenging. And even though we are in the process of experiencing social events, dinners out, or just going to the grocery store with no fear – it is still hard to look at life with joy. We have all experienced so much over this past year. Some of the losses we have suffered will never be replaced. Our perspective on everyday events has changed. The memories of the pandemic are encoded in our brains and will overshadow everything we think and do. How are we supposed to get back to feeling good about our lives and ‘keep on moving on’?
Our brains are hardwired for our survival. The brain’s main purpose is to keep us alive. So, it is constantly on alert for anything that might be a threat to us. Before we have any knowledge that we are in a threat situation our brain has already put the fight or flight system into play. There is a cascade of chemicals that are released before we even know it. Normally we would work through the problem and our brain would cut off the adrenalin production and would go back to normal function. But – that didn’t happen last year. We were in a chronic stress cycle with no end in sight.
The isolation, and attempts to connect via phone, Zoom, or working via laptop, or putting in lots of TV screen time has taken a toll on all of us. It was so bad that during the pandemic, many people felt their mental health decline. The number of adults with signs of anxiety and depression has grown threefold, from about 10% to 30%.
There are many signs that we are coming back to our normal – planning vacations and socializing more. But there are still others who may still have lingering signs of what psychologists call languishing. They may feel an emptiness or dissatisfaction in day-to-day life. Or they fell like they are stuck in weariness or stagnation.
How Emotions Rise
I described above how the brain works when it senses a threat. It is the brain that senses these physiological changes and decides which emotions to conjure up. The emotion is the interpretation of what’s going on both inside (the adrenaline rush) and outside the body (the threat). The brain has to figure out what caused the sensory signals. The chosen emotion not only helps the brain make sense of the signals, but it also helps the brain predict better the immediate future and how to handle the situation at hand. Which emotion would be most useful? Which emotion will help me survive? In order to figure that out, the brain uses one more piece of information – the brain takes into account your past experiences, your memories.
Did you notice that none of this was conscious effort on the part of your brain? All of these actions are taking place in the subconscious area of our brains below our level of awareness. When your brain makes memories, it consolidates similar memory signals. Your memory meets a certain criteria level of similar memories. Your perspective on life comes through these memories. They act as your filter on how you will react. If your brain senses a threat and it finds similar memory confirming that threat – you will experience fear. If your brain sees the current threat as a positive experience – your brain might release an excited emotion.
Psychologist, Lisa Feldman Barret says “Your brain uses memories from the past in order to create the present. It’s bringing knowledge from the past to make sense of the immediate future, which then becomes your present.” Neuroscientists call this “the predictive brain.” Barrett goes on to say “Understanding how these predictions work is very powerful knowledge. It means that emotions aren’t hardwired reactions to particular situations, which are out of your control. But rather it is the opposite. You can, in fact, modify what you feel in very direct ways.”
Gaining Control over Your Thoughts
These researchers are simply stating that you can change the way that you think about your experiences. Your brain is very capable of putting a positive spin on events in your life. But of course, there is a caveat. Because your brain has been operating in a chronic stress cycle, it reacts negatively to almost everything. That is because you are thinking negatively about almost everything. How can you change this thinking?
First of all, get up and move. Your brain functions better and you feel better when you exercise. When your brain and your body are happier – you are happier too!
Secondly, you need to cultivate positive emotions to present events. You are changing your brain by hardwiring positive reactions. This means that you have the positive hardwiring to move you through negative thinking in the future. So, when you start to feel a negative emotion, such as sadness or frustration, you can more easily swap that negative feeling for a positive one, such as awe and gratitude.
Practicing positive emotions is helpful to prevent or work with everyday doldrums and weariness. Using myself as an example, I walk every day and I practice mindful walking. Initially I tune in on background sounds because they are soothing. Then I practice gratitude. Despite all of the negative things that happened over the past year, I still found a healthy list of things that I am grateful for. And finally, I pray. If I have concerns about family, friends, business outcomes, or money issues, I pray for guidance and direction. Releasing these worries is so therapeutic for me. When I get home from my walk, I actually feel energized.
Our brain is always taking care of us. Defer to it for everything, but practice hardwiring the positive responses that support you. I am very grateful that I can count on my brain to pull me out of my doldrums!
Doucleff, M. (June 29, 2021). Stuck in a rut? Sometimes joy takes a little practice. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/06/29/1010319240/stuck-in-a-rut-sometimes-joy-takes-a-little-practice?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&...