You know those days when you’re offloading your worries and anxieties to a helpless friend and they throw a ‘just try thinking positive’ into the mix?
I don’t think I ever took that sentence very seriously. As if thinking positive is something you can just switch on, or even worse, something you failed to materialise.
In all those years of working with people in support or therapy and my own experience in counselling, I always felt something was missing: that positive, sparkling, beautiful, enlightening, miraculous something that reassured me that life is worth living and can be fun. And of course, we all have some memories of sparkling moments, but I wanted it to be a more permanent feature in my life, regardless of my age or situation.
The good news: Positive thinking does work!
And it is all controlled in a small place which many of us have never even heard of or ever think about, the left frontal cortex. It is the space that we call ‘the zone’, the place which allows us to feel happy and content and allows us to make logical assessments and reasonable decisions. It is the place where anxiety, anger, depression and all those negative feelings simply don’t exist. A space, where – let’s face it – we’d all like to be all the time – and just for ease, let’s call it ‘Chez Sophie’.
Sophie is that wise, chilled, reasonable, friendly and well-balanced friend we all have come to appreciate so much! We simply feel great in her company.
It’s less like a switch and more like a muscle
‘So how do I get there, to Sophie’s?’, I hear you ask. When we do things that make us happy (a chat with a friend, a dog walk, a work achievement, cuddles with our kids or pets, that hobby we are so passionate about) we are automatically in that happy zone. And more importantly, we produce some important neurotransmitters like serotonin, also called ‘happiness chemicals’. And if we do it regularly, we create new neuro-pathways. It is just like going to the gym: the more we do it, the better we get at it.
But, if stress comes along in form of bad news, an argument, an overflowing diary or an unexpected bill, we easily slip into our ‘original primitive brain’, where the amygdala (I call her Amy!) is the lady of the manner.
Amy is an incredible friend. She is spontaneous and a bit ‘out there’, the one who will do anything for you if you are in trouble. She is by nature the one who guarantees your survival, who helps you to be alert in traffic and run faster to save your child from running towards a barking dog. But, Amy is stubborn and by nature vigilant; she can be very obsessional. She will see everything in the most negative light.
So, do we have to choose between Sophie and Amy?
No! We need both to live. Sophie for our daily routines, to make decisions which are right for us and the people important to us, to have fun and enjoy being alive. Sophie will get us even through the mundane and help us enjoy the exciting.
But we also need Amy – simply to protect us from potential dangers.
Sophie and Amy do like to fight.
Ever wondered who these two voices are who seem to get louder in your head at certain times? There is the one who tells you ‘Yay! It’s wine o’clock! You had a good day, have a drink!’. Or maybe she says ‘You had a bad day, have a drink’… and then you have that other, reasoning voice ‘Come on, you don’t need a drink again. You had one yesterday and the day before. Surely you can go without for one night?’
Who wins depends on …
…how we feel. Interestingly enough two people with similar tight schedules, family situations and living conditions might have very different perceptions. How we think – and here the positivity comes to flourish – will determine how our brain perceives stress.
If Amy thinks we are super stressed and can’t cope, she will jump in to help. She will help us by causing us to feel anxious, depressed or angry, or even all three, as she thinks it will help us cope.
If we perceive our lives as a challenge, our brain will perceive it as positive and Sophie will be the one helping us make the right choices and feel in control and on top of it.
How do we get the balance right?
In Hypnotherapy, we talk about a ‘stress bucket’. Good sleep will allow us to wake up with an empty bucket. As it fills through the day, we can do small things to empty it: that 10-minute break; that lovely chat; some fresh air and nature; a quick meditation. If we manage to keep that bucket empty, we will have a more successful day and feel good about our lives.
Some people think positive by nature, others don’t. But we can learn to change our thinking. Anyone can learn to master positive thinking!
There are many helpful meditations and trances out there to help us train our brains. Because one of the best discoveries of modern neuroscience is the plasticity of the brain.
We are not just victims of genes and cultural context, but we can actively (re)shape our brain!