This is part 2 in a series by Dr. Jena Field on rewiring your brain for happiness.
“‘Tis the season to be jolly,” may ring out of every store and gas station during the holiday season but in reality we are more likely to feel down in the winter months than any other time of year.
In my last article, we talked about focusing on instances of happiness in order to deepen the positive neural pathways in our brains and increase the likelihood of feeling happier in the future. According to neurologist Rick Hall, when we “take in the good,” we counterbalance our brain’s tendency to focus on the negative.
Feeling depressed or anxious is never pleasant but this unpleasantness is what makes negative emotions useful. Our brains are hardwired to attend to that which may harm us. Similar to how hunger motivates us to seek food, negative emotions motivate us seek safety and comfort (and to take better care of ourselves).
Cold weather, crowds, traffic, and that never-ending stream of Christmas music can wear anyone down. However, negative thoughts tend to linger past their usefulness when we feel run down and low. Prolonged negative thinking can result in negative thinking habits, which alter our neural structure over time. However, we can lessen the impact that negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences have on our brains.
Psychologist Steve Hayes suggests that we allow ourselves to feel bad in order to feel better. This may seem counterintuitive, especially to Western cultures where we try to control and rid ourselves of our anxiety, depression, and frustration. But Tibetan Buddhists believe that this attempted control is the problem and not the solution.
An increasingly popular new treatment called Acceptance Commitment Therapy is based on this assumption. ACT proposes that when we stop fighting our emotional pain and focus on the things that are important to us, we actually suffer less.
ACT’s founder, Steve Hayes, suggests that when we judge a thought or feeling, we give it more power. For example, the more time and energy that we spend trying to control our anxious thoughts, the more anxious we become. Beating ourselves up about feeling down just adds more negative feelings to the collection we’re already coping with. So we become depressed about being depressed. We may not be able to shift our unwanted mood but we can change how we feel about the mood itself.
We have thousands of thoughts and feelings a day. We can’t possibly attend to all of them. When negative thoughts arise, don’t ignore them, judge them, or try to stop them. Acknowledge them and let them pass. Here is how.
1. Let your negative thoughts and feelings flow. Neurologist Rick Hall suggests that we think of our thoughts as flowing through our mind like a river. If we attach to a thought, then we can ‘let it go and let it flow.’ Here is an example.
Attaching negative thoughts and feelings:
Thought: I feel like such a failure.
Reaction: I am doing it again. I am beating myself up. Every time I try to be positive, I fail. See, I am a failure. Stop it. Stop it. But I can’t even do this right. Ugh.
Accepting negative thoughts and feelings and letting go:
Thought: I feel like such a failure.
Reaction. Hmmm. There is that thought again. What should I have for dinner?
2. Meditate ten minutes a day to get better at it. Apps such as Headspace offer short (some are only 1-2 minutes) exercises that you can do anywhere. The Acceptance exercise teaches how to accept our own thoughts and feelings as well as other people’s difficulties. There are also short exercises on patience, pain management, and happiness.
3. Practice self-compassion. I say ‘practice’ because self-compassion is a skill. We will inevitably get stuck on negative thoughts and feelings and it easy to get disheartened. With Kristen Neff’s collection of self-compassion meditations, you can learn to compassionately let thoughts and feelings flow. The less palatable it sounds to you, the more you may need it.
Accepting our negative thoughts and feelings does not mean that we should not take steps to better our lives. “Letting our thoughts flow” is useful when we have done what we can to remedy our negative mood but it still persists. We don’t have to be carried away by our thoughts and emotions. And letting go frees up the mental space so we can focus more on the positive experiences in our lives.