Taking in the good as daily practice…

Do you find yourself worrying, being negative or feeling anxious when things are basically okay?

I’m reminded of a quote by Mark Twain, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

This week I will be talking about how to shift your perspective to a more positive mindset.

A woman I’ll call Claire realized that she had a good life—a job that she enjoyed, a good marriage, friends, a nice apartment, and good health. Yet she found herself focusing on the mishaps or annoyances that inevitably happen in everyday life.

For example, someone would cut her off in line or worse in traffic, something became misplaced or broken, a friend was slow to return her call. She’d become agitated and these thoughts would occupy her mind front and center.

Rather than thinking about how much fun she loved making jewelry in her studio, her sweet yoga practice, her generally good relationships with her friends and family—she’d invariably focus on the stuff that was disappointing.

What brought her in to see me was that she felt like this lack of joy, of gratitude and the negativity that often left her feeling down. This negativity loop began to take on a life to its own. She expected the worst despite all of the good in her life and inevitably her experiences would reinforce this perspective.

We discussed her past and where this originated. Over time it became apparent that her early relationship with her mother played into Claire’s fears and negativity. Simultaneously I began working with Claire from a behavioral perspective to help her to cultivate a more positive attitude.

Do you sometimes get anxious, fearful or down for no apparent reason?

Did you know that negativity is often a learned response and that regardless of its origins, much of it can be quieted or tamed by practicing certain methods?

According to Rick Hanson we humans have a “negativity bias.” Negative experiences tend to stick in our minds like velcro whereas positive experiences are like teflon and usually just slip away.
Think of the last time someone gave you feedback. Perhaps you were given five lovely compliments about a project you were doing and one negative piece of feedback.

Which of those thoughts stuck in your mind??
Most of us have a tendency to scan the horizon for what is wrong rather than appreciating what is good and positive in our lives. When we shift this orientation even for moments at a time we develop the capacity for greater positivity and we become poised to bring ourselves into a better place of well-being.

When we hone in on the positive we are better able to realize our potential, higher energy levels, and greater success. The key is to over-practice and ar over-learn the integration of positive thoughts and emotions into our brains.

Over time and by practicing certain skills it is possible to retrain the brain to fire differently so that thinking more positively or optimistically becomes the norm. This feels good and boosts our mindset, productivity, and creativity.

The first step as I told Claire is to look for patterns and connections that brought her joy and to become more keenly aware of what felt good in life—even if the feeling of happiness was fleeting.

In essence we were beginning to activate the mechanism in her brain responsible for positive emotions and if only briefly overriding the brain’s natural tendency to scan for and reside in the negative.

Strategy for “taking in the good” or thinking more positively
(This strategy expands upon the work of Dr. Rick Hanson.)

  • Get into a comfortable sitting position. Take some deep breaths to feel grounded, present, and focused.
  • Notice some positive aspect in your life. It can be small or significant. 
  • Allow yourself to entertain this thought in your mind. The idea is to train the brain to notice positive information and experiences.
  • Take some slow, deep breaths and allow yourself to linger in this positive space for ten seconds or longer. Stretching out the positive. This might feel awkward or forced at first—but in time staying with the positive sensations will become easier and more pleasant. 
  • Now ramp it up one notch higher. Intensify the feelings associated with this experience more deeply allowing the memory to soak into the recesses of your mind and body. This time involve all of your senses––taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell.
  • Notice whatever might be unique about this event and why it matters to you. What feelings do you hold about this experience?
  • Savor the positive feelings and let them become embedded in your mind and heart. The idea is to transfer positive experiences from short-to-long term memory and this happens with practice.

As you continue to look for and savor the good you are creating new neural pathways leading to greater positivity. In time you become better able to take in positive experiences more often and in a more lasting ways. Keep in mind that the longer a positive thought or experience is held in conscious awareness the more it becomes embedded in the brain.

Practice this strategy once or twice daily for 3-5 minutes and notice what happens over the course of the next few weeks. It takes a couple of months to change a habit, but I think with this exercise you might start noticing the benefits almost immediately.

I’d love to hear your comments or feedback about what you observe after practicing this exercise.

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