Getting out of a negative rut

Hooked on a feeling

Getting stuck in negative mental ruts is painful and distracts from what’s good in life.

Challenging situations are mentally sticky and hard to shake. They easily start to colour our lives and we can become resistant to seeing what’s good in life. Our brains react strongly to what’s unpleasant. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson from UC Berkeley coined the phrase, “our brains are Teflon for what’s positive, and Velcro for the negative.”

The brain’s tendency to over-emphasize what’s challenging keeps us stuck in a constant state of stress, and we can feel victim to life’s challenges. It’s called the inherent negativity bias, the tendency of our minds to pay more attention to danger.

Research shows it takes five positives to off-set one negative criticism in healthy relationships. The same is true for life’s experiences. We’re biologically wired to pay more attention to what’s challenging, or negative; it’s a safety mechanism for survival, but we’re overusing it.

When stuck in a negative mental loop, our bodies quickly follow suit, as shots of stress hormones circulate. It doesn’t matter if challenging situations are currently happening, or coming from memory; our bodies react as if we’re faced with the threat in the present moment.

It’s challenging to switch gears once we’ve rehearsed a negative mental loop because neurons, or brain cells, that “fire together, wire together” according to Hanson. Each time we practice a mental thought, negative mental connections become stronger.

This easily colours our perspective on life, and we can become negative, cynical, or pessimistic. We start to view the world darkly, seeing only what’s bad, experiencing irritation and frustration at every turn, as the storehouse of negativity grows more quickly than what’s good.

We don’t have to be victim to our negative thoughts, and with practice we can change the landscape of our minds. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can change our set-point for happiness.

It’s not about trying to ignore or suppress what’s difficult, it’s learning to use what’s good in our lives to consciously change our brains. In the shadows of life’s challenges, we often miss seeing what’s good. We can learn to look for what’s good, and allow it to serve us to restructure our brains for happiness and a more balanced perspective. It’s not about being Pollyanna, but using life’s simple pleasures to restore our balance and reduce our suffering.

Hanson created a simple yet effective practice, with the acronym of HEAL, that helps change the neural landscape of our brains, allowing us to consciously create more connections for what’s good.

1. H—Have and notice good experiences that, in reality, are happening all around us. These can be happening in real-time or be retrieved from a memory.

2. E—Enrich the experience, savour and expand it.

3. A—Absorb it. Allow yourself to drink-in the good feelings of the experience for 5 to 20 seconds. This is important as it allows the expansion of the feeling.

4. L—Linking it to a moderately challenging experience is an optional step, in which we flip back-and forth between savouring the good, and what’s been mildly challenging.

It benefits us to intentionally stimulate positive feelings. The longer we hold the positive in our awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it is, according to University of Toronto researcher Marc Lewis.

When we consciously prolong our experience of positive things, it starts to change our ability to take in the good, anchoring our positive response.

The fourth step of linking is optional, and isn’t required. It’s beneficial though, because when we practice linking the challenging with the good, it allows what’s painful to be infused with feelings of peace and comfort, and reduces the suffering created by challenge.

The more we allow ourselves to take in the good, the more effective we become in navigating what’s not. Practicing HEAL doesn’t have instant results. As Hanson says, “it’s the law of little things,” and the cumulative effect of practice creates positive change. New positive neural connections develop over time.

You can begin the practice right now, and repeat it periodically throughout your day. What’s something good in your life right now; think of a compliment, kind word, or sweet success.

Take a few moments to bring one to mind and fill in the details. Make it big and spend some time savouring it.

Here’s to your health and happiness.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


What is your 'why?'

Finding meaning in life

I smiled at a wee-one recently who proclaimed, “I can’t wait to be an adult!” in response to her mother’s refusal to buy her a desired toy.

Her mother and I locked eyes and smiled as we wryly shared that being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Being an adult is losing its lustre for many. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted and certainly not as I’d imagined it would when I was a youth.

In my work, people report working harder and longer but are experiencing decreased levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. They are not enjoying “adulting.”

People find they’re busy but not happy, living a life based on habit, obligation and reaction rather than from awareness and conscious choice. When that happens, it’s easy to lose sight of meaning and what we value most. Where is purpose and meaning? Where is life?

It’s easy to feel resentful when we’re exhausted and our efforts feel like a sacrifice. It’s no wonder we feel drained if we fail to fill and nourish ourselves with things that add meaning and depth to our lives. It’s an expensive way to live. You can’t give from an empty vessel. We must fill ourselves.

With the holiday season fast approaching, the pressure of living is mounting for many. What are we doing to ourselves? Are we forsaking happiness in the face of constant busyness, the need to keep up appearances, and time-pressures?

I’ve gained clarity in remembering to ask myself, why? What is the meaning and purpose behind my actions? This is an important but often under-asked, question.

Why do we do any of the things we do? What is my “why?”

I’ve made it a practice to pause and ask myself that question when I consider a new undertaking, and when I notice I’ve started to live my life from habit and routine, or based on others’ expectations. That simple question wakes me up and helps me to gain clarity.

When I forget the reason or meaning behind the things I do, I lose the joy of living. Realigning with my purpose helps me regain the sense of joy and meaning. It reinvigorates me and helps keep me on track. With the approach of the holidays, I’m drawn to pause and remember the meaning behind the season’s activities for me. I come back to my values and intentions for living. I consciously choose the qualities I want my actions to reflect. Our intentions are the invisible essence that infuse what we do with meaning.

Each of us has different traditions for the holidays, but when we lose touch with the meaning of the traditions, they are empty actions. When we do things out of habit or obligation, the essence is lost and we miss out on the reciprocal nature of giving.

I now look at my to-do list and remember why each item is on the list, and who or what it represents. I think about the people in my life and have gratitude for my opportunity to engage with them this season. I also reflect on the meaning of our traditions.

For example, I asked myself about the purpose and intention of holiday meals. Are they an opportunity to be together and enjoy one another’s company or is it to exhaust myself and demonstrate my vast culinary acumen and table-decorating ability? I’ve learned I’d rather serve a simple meal in joy rather than a gourmet feast cooked from sacrifice and exhaustion.

Just because I’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it must continue. Extraneous demands and activities fall away if the answer to “why?” is not in alignment with our values and what’s important to us. We can then experience the richness of living life on purpose.

Living out of alignment with what we value most creates stress. Chronic stress is expensive to our physical, mental and emotional health. As the three intersect, it can feel like a downward spiral. We may begin to see life as something to be survived instead of lived and enjoyed.

Pausing and asking why can offer us a new, fresh perspective and clarity. It can reinvigorate our intention for living. It’s heartening to recognize we are always at a point of choice and change.

Living from habit or in reaction to life can change into a life of conscious, mindful response. What is your “why?”

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

It's time to start treating ourselves better

A rebellion of self-worth

If not now, then when? When is enough, enough?

In our culture, many people abide in the “trance of unworthiness” I wrote briefly about last week. What more must be perfected, learned, changed, honed and improved upon for us to like and accept ourselves, just as we are?

It’s curious how easily we accept the perfection of babies as they grow and learn. While knowing they’ll continue to change and evolve, we see them as perfect for the stage they’re at. Then, something changes. I don’t know when it happens.

Growing into the teen and adult years, that voice of self-doubt and dislike often surfaces. Self-judgment, self-deprecation and a feeling that we are lacking is common. Self-criticism overshadows self-encouragement as the internal voices become harsher.

Whether it is our physical attributes, such as our weight, hair or wrinkles, personality quirks or our intelligence, the over-whelming tendency is self-criticism and feeling we just don’t measure-up. Akin to being at war with ourselves, despite trying our best, those internal voices of never measuring-up hold court in our minds. If we knew people in our lives who were as rude and unkind to us as our internal voices, we’d never befriend them.

We deflect compliments, put ourselves down and are prone to continue striving for some elusive destination of feeling enough, like some carrot we dangle in-front of ourselves.

We’ve come to believe it’s arrogant and lacking humility to like ourselves just as we are. We may believe we’ll stay stuck if we accept ourselves as we are. This is not true.

In my life’s work, I feel blessed to journey with people during their end-days and talk about things that really matter. We talk about their lives, their accomplishments and failures, their successes, mistakes, regrets and satisfactions, and consider the legacy of their lives.

I’m drawn to ask them as they see their time on earth ending, whether they can look back over their lives—the good and the challenging, the successes and failures— and consider whether it was a life well-lived.

Even on our death-beds, many people are still caught in this trance and it’s tragic when people are unable to consider their life well-lived. Most people live good lives, endeavouring to lend goodness to life and make a positive difference in this world. But focussed on mistakes and failures and dreams never realized, they’re unable to acknowledge the good

Yes, each of us has regrets and instances where we wish for a do-over. But often those regrets and mistakes do not overshadow or outweigh the goodness that’s left in the wake of our living.

We’ve taken humility too far, and it’s costing us our happiness and ability to recognize the good we’ve created. It’s also interesting how we can easily see the good created in other people’s lives but fail to see it for our own.

I ask all to reconsider and start to take a kinder stance toward themselves. To be more forgiving of ourselves when we’ve tried and failed and consider we thrive and grow best in safe and caring environments, even internal ones.

A recent meme seems to capture it all, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”

Please join the rebellion.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


The busy beast that hungers within us

'The cult of busy'

Engaging the “cult of busy” comes at great cost.

While it’s become trendy to overextend ourselves—seeking happiness and our sense of value in the achievements of all we can accomplish—cramming our to-do list with demands, robs us of the experience of life and the joy of living.

As a young woman, I believed my worth and value rested on the many things I accomplished, yet that sense of being enough was never satisfied. It was like a hungry monster, increasingly demanding more of me. The monster was never satiated, and I never felt it was enough.

The belief of “learn more, try harder, stay busy, and maybe I’ll be happy” left me feeling flawed and separate from life. I felt spit out at the end of each day.

Psychologist Tara Brach calls it “the trance of unworthiness.”

“Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy,” says Brach.

I’d hoped to find that sense of being good enough through all the things I did, the accomplishments I achieved and the accolades I received. None of it was enough, and the internal sense of discomfort and feelings of lack created anxiety and emotional distress. I felt desperate and wondered when I’d feel like I was enough, when I’d be happy.

Feeling unhappy despite having everything I could ask for left me feeling ungrateful and guilty. What was wrong with me? Couldn’t I just be happy?

Like many, I was conditioned to try to avoid uncomfortable emotions by getting busier to distract myself. The veneer of perfectionism and over-achieving I’d created to try and protect myself and feel safe cracked under the pressure. It was a never-ending cycle of suffering and what was important in life seemed to pass me by.

The “cult of busy” is all too common today. Through supporting others I’ve learned I’m not alone. The good news, and the challenging news, are that gaining self-worth and happiness is an inside job.

As strange as it sounds, I bless, and am grateful for, the experience of burn-out that’s led me out of a life lived in reaction to stress, over-load and anxiety. It caused me to question false-beliefs and returned me to the source of my suffering, which was my own mind and habits of life.

While I wished someone else could awaken me from the trance of unworthiness and soothe my mental and emotional torment, I found this wasn’t true. There was no white-knight who was going to come charging in to save me and make right my world.

While loving family and friends were helpful, I learned that finding my self-worth and changing my internal climate was something only I alone could do.

If we find ourselves struggling, it’s important we know we’re not alone. It saddens me how many people wonder what’s wrong with them, why they aren’t happy, despite having accomplished the many things they’d been told would bring happiness.

I’ve learned to call it a “seek and don’t find world”, the belief we’ll be happy when we reach some illusory goal or achievement when we have the perfect partner, home or job. It isn’t true. While we may feel OK for a while, those old feelings tend to resurface all too soon.

While not a panacea, engaging in mindfulness practices helped me to gain distance from the self-critical rhetoric that coursed through my mind. In observing my thoughts, I began to question whether my operating-system of staying busy to find my value and avoid painful feelings was valid. I learned it was not.

When the “cult of busy” calls and I notice feelings of stress, or that old sense of “not-enoughness” surfacing, I’ve found the most powerful question I can ask myself is, “What do I need right now?”

Instead of trying to push those feelings down, turning to myself like a compassionate friend to see what I truly need has been so helpful. Just pausing and asking the question causes an internal shift. As I distance myself from that internal chatter, I find the answers to what I truly need surface, and I follow the inner wisdom that responds.

I’ve shared this simple exercise with many who have found it more helpful than getting busy ever did.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

An assistant minister at the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, she is a retired nurse with a master’s degree in health science and is a hospice volunteer.  She is also an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan and currently spends her time teaching smartUBC, a unique mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. 

She is a speaker and presenter and from her diverse experience and knowledge, both personally and professionally, she has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people gain a new perspective, awaken and recognize we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts, stress or to life. We are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 44 years and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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