Has your mind been hijacked by your brain? or more specifically one tiny part of your brain? The amygdala is a tiny almond-shaped organ in the brain that, in spite of it's small size, can control your entire experience as well as affect your memory of that experience.
I’d like to ask you to try a short exercise with me. It won’t be pleasant but it will most likely be very powerful. However, let me caution you that this exercise can be highly triggering if you suffer from PTSD or are vulnerable to dissociation. If this describes you, I recommend that you skip the exercise (printed in blue) and read the rest of the post. So begin by thinking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you - just briefly, just long enough to identify it. And then think about the second worst thing that’s ever happened to you, then think about the third worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Now think about the fourth worst thing that’s ever happened to you. And now the fifth and now identify the sixth, and now the seventh. Stop when you want to. And now think about the best thing that’s ever happened to you. If you would like to dwell on that for a few minutes that would be great for your brain! And now think about the second best thing that’s ever happened to you,. And when you are finished enjoying that memory, think about the third best thing that’s ever happened to you. Now identify the fourth best thing that has ever happened to you. Now the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth. Go on identifying as long as you would like to.
Most people are unable to identify in a short period of time, more than six or seven worse things, but are able to identify 20+ of the positive things. I participated in this exercise not too long ago and was absolutely blown away. As I'm writing this, I am in a hotel room where the air conditioner is blowing right on my head. It is unpleasant. Everytime that it turns on, I notice it. But I just realized that I never notice when it stops blowing. So I decided to try and catch the moment when the discomfort disappeared and it was so much harder to notice! It just didn't grab my attention the way the discomfort did. This is a trite example, but it does illustrate my point that even when we aren't in danger, our attention is grabbed more effectively by our negative experiences.
Why then, is it that the negative memories have affected us more, take up more of our brain real estate in the form of neural pathways, and grab our thoughts more often? We might assume that it’s because we’ve had more negative things happen in our lives than positive. But it turns out that this exercise seems to prove differently even among people who have had many negative experiences.
I’ve written before that it’s more important to know where the bear lives than where the daffodils grow. Your brain is designed to focus more on the negative (sometimes called the negativity bias) because it has more survival value for you. That means that your brain will naturally trend toward the negative.
One of the most unfortunate ways this affects us is in our identity. We often take in messages about ourselves, or make assumptions about ourselves from our negative experiences and turn these messages into identity statements or global statements.
I won’t be loved
I'm not important
I can't make mistakes
I can't have what I need
I shouldn't need...
These statements are global in nature in that they are all or nothing, as opposed to a specific statement which might sound like "some people like me and some don’t". To summarize, your brain will always hijack your mind toward the negative unless you intentionally shift that.
So what to do?
If your amygdala is in control and there isn't a true need to run or fight,
you need to use another part of your brain to calm it down.
When it is warning you of danger (that person doesn't like me), you need to use your prefrontal cortex to decide if the danger is real. A good way to access this part of your brain, is simply asking yourself some questions that you can ponder. The act of pondering, considering options, or stepping outside of yourself to get a different perspective are activities which activate your prefrontal cortex. Again, it won't come naturally, so you may need to memorize some questions and practice when you're calm.
Is what I'm feeling more associated with former experiences?
Could I be reacting out of habit?
Am I making assumptions that may not fit this moment?
Is anything positive happening right now?
Try catching your thoughts when they are negative and global in nature, especially when they are related to identity or your self-concept and tell your amygdala "thank you but no thank you. There is no bear to run from. I don’t need you to warn me right now." You will then need to follow that up with positive truths. A couple of minutes a day of shifting your thoughts to the positive will change your entire day. Now for some, you may feel that you don’t want to do this because you don’t deserve it or those who hurt you don’t deserve it for you to get over it, etc. Of course that is your choice, however, this is still your brain being hijacked by the negative. My hope is that you do it anyway.
Do you have old narratives that you'd like to reevaluate? I've written a workbook called "I'm Not Good Enough: How the Stories You Tell Yourself are Ruining Your Life." This workbook offers a step-by-step process for reevaluating and letting go of beliefs that are no longer helpful to you. You can read more about it here and contact me if you'd like to order a copy.
I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page to like or leave a comment.