“Feelings are much like waves. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which one to surf.”
a poster in a beautiful show home, Squamish, BC
According to the old Beach Boys song, “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” But catch a negative-feeling wave? You’re swamped, sitting on the bottom of the sea.
What to do? How to stay afloat?
Well, no worries. (Brad Keefe, writing a few years back about all the emotions in Pixar’s movie Inside Out, lists an astounding 72 feels and plunks worry on the bottom, so I mean it: no worries!) I’ve done some research and the best feels list I’ve come up with is from Gabrielle Bernstein’s new book Super Attractor. Here they are in emotional scale order:
- Positive Expectation/Belief
- Overwhelment (feeling overwhelmed)
I like this list because, although I said “no worries”, I do tend to worry and worry sits at approximately mid-scale. Which means? I might not be surfing, but I’m not drowning either; I’m usually treading water.
Quickly note this interesting observation: the majority of the feels are negative. Why?
It’s called the “negativity bias”. Think: caveman, survival. According to Dr. Rick Hanson in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, humans share ancestors with “bats, begonias and bacteria that go back at least 3.5 billion years”. We’re hardwired to avoid negative threats to stay alive. Writes Hanson, “The amygdala – the brain region that regulates emotion and motivation – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news.”
Two-thirds! Negativity is something we have to fight with all our might. And speaking of the amygdala, here’s some research that might help you understand the US impeachment hearings and why some high-profile, seemingly intelligent Republicans continue to resist obvious facts about their crooked, misogynistic, racist bully of a leader.
In an article entitled “How your uncle’s conspiracy theories trigger your brain’s anxiety areas” Maria Gallucci writes, “Researchers found that the brain’s amygdala and insular cortex were more active in people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs. Both brain areas are important for emotion and decision-making and are associated with fear, anxiety, emotional responses and the perception of threat.”
Fear, at rock-bottom on Bernstein’s list, is an emotion we don’t want to be riding all the time, right? Grief is down there too and certainly anyone who’s gone through losses of loved ones knows that raw, lonely feeling and how heavy it is. I sure wish I had Bernstein’s book when I was in deep grief because she gives great examples of how to climb up the emotional scale, bit by bit. If you’re feeling afraid, or grief-stricken, jumping to joy would seem – and actually is – quite impossible, but how about a bit of anger? And then my old friend worry? That moves you up the scale in manageable fashion.
From the article “Why Your Brain Has a Negativity Bias and How to Fix It” by Blake Thorne here are five great suggestions on how to be more positive:
- Re-frame the language behind your goals– eg. Leadership at Pixar found that employees were not sharing honest opinions due to fear: of hurting someone’s feelings, of having their own hurt. A new word “candor” was introduced. That word became associated with “analyzing projects, not people”.
- Be aware of the negativity bias – try this mantra: “I am not a caveman, and this is not a tiger.”
- Keep a gratitude journal – I love this! When I was grieving and things continued to go wrong, I started to review three positive things that happened to me in the day. Simple things. A smile from a stranger. A ride to an event. A hug. I would think about it, relive it, feel the good feels about it. My daughter noted recently that someone nicely placed the divider on the grocery belt. Easy-peasy and kind acts. (You could also offer these up, daily, and see how your life becomes more positive.)
- Distract yourself – both Bernstein and Thorne agree on this one. “Distraction is the fastest way back into alignment,” Bernstein writes, quoting spiritual guides Abraham-Hicks. The trick is to not use distraction as an escape. Writes Thorne, “Negative events are a natural part of life. Running away from them with mindless distractions will only make things worse. But a healthy approach to distractions can give you the space you need to think clearly and be more productive.”
- Take in the good – spend more time soaking in positive experiences, even small ones, which reinforces the positive patterns in the brain. Writes Thorne, “And your brain learns from experiences, building new neural pathways; researchers call this neuroplasticity.”
I’m living proof of this. While I do succumb to worry from time to time and (I admit) I’ve been addicted to the US impeachment drama (just looking for a little “schadenfreude”, 32ndon the Inside Out list, which means to take pleasure in the misfortune of others, but it’s just one person whose downfall I watch for) I turned my grief around with baby steps, toward positivity, toward the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Website Photo: A sea lion sunning on Bowen Island, awaiting the right wave to catch.