We all have the ability to create any emotion we want to experience at the flick of a switch. Imagine someone brings you a big, juicy lime. That person cuts into it, and the lime juice squirts onto you. He gives you a piece, and as you bite into it your face puckers as you taste the sour juices. Now, notice that your tongue feels tingly or is salivating. Just thinking about limes triggers a wire in your brain that tells your tongue to prepare for the lime by producing the saliva that is needed to break down the powerful acids. Our emotional brain wiring works in the same way.
Our brains do not know the difference between what we are thinking and what is actually happening.
Our thoughts create our emotions and, since we can consciously choose our thoughts, we can choose our emotions. The positive thinking movement has been gaining popularity in the past 10 years because more and more scientific evidence has surfaced that reinforces the belief that changing your thoughts will change your life.
In a world with no stress it would be easy to create a life of permanent bliss using positive thinking alone. However, once stress is triggered joy disappears.
Your brain cannot be in a state of stress and joy at the same time.
The Science of Stress
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived because of their “fight or flight” response to short-term danger. When being chased by a lion, it was important to react without worrying about how it would affect others, the consequences, or how it would make your butt look.
During fight or flight your rational brain (the pre-frontal lobe) turns off. If you’ve ever been angry and done or said something totally irrational then you know what happens when your prefrontal lobe shuts off and your lymbic system (reptilian brain) takes over. This was useful when being chased by a lion, but the problem is that today we see lions everywhere.
Most people live in a state of mild to moderate stress, which leads to disease and blocks your joy.
Not only does stress incapacitate your rational faculties, it also releases hormones that dock into your cell receptors, blocking feel-good chemicals from being able to dock. As your body is exposed to long-term stress, and as cells continue to generate, they begin growing more and more receptors that are a perfect fit for stress hormones and less receptors for joy.
Our brains process information through connections or wires. When a stimulus triggers a wire it will either lead to a joy circuit or stress circuit, automatically. The more a wire is triggered, the stronger it gets and the more easily it will be triggered in the future.
The key to true joy is to eliminate stress circuits and strengthen joy circuits.
If you were walking down the sidewalk and tripped, it would trigger a minor level of anxiety. If you were walking on the edge of a cliff and tripped, you would feel a severe level of anxiety. This is the effect that stress has on people. If you’re highly stressed, a small stressor will induce a disproportionately large reaction. Stress builds up in people’s bodies, causing what is called a “chronic stress effect.” The more stress builds up, the closer people get to emotional cliffs.
The key to joy is getting distance from your cliff by using preventative techniques, such as meditating, reading, listening to positive music, spending time in nature, journaling, doing something for the greater good, laughing, and doing what you love.
Unfortunately, no matter how much you do the above activities you are unlikely to be able to stop yourself from being reactive to the well-established stress circuits in your brain. The only way to stop them is to rewire the circuits.
Step 1 – Identify: What are your “hot buttons?” What people, activities, or topics really boil your blood? What negative memories do you think about often?
Step 2 – Become Aware: Be the witness to your emotions/triggers. Allow them to be there without trying to fade or avoid them. Fully experience them. Simply observing something once can have profound effects.
Step 3 – Avoid Stress: Not all stress avoidance is created equal. Poor avoidance strategies include: repressing the feelings or seeking short-term gratification and pleasure (often confused as happiness) through activities such as compulsively playing games, shopping, watching TV, going out, drinking, etc. Constructive ways to avoid the following stressors include:
Irritating Person: Give yourself the distance and time to calm down for at least five minutes, giving your frontal lobe time to turn back on (counting to 10 is not long enough).
Activity/Circumstance: Consider stopping it immediately or planning to eliminate it from your life, and if you can’t do either of these—accept it. Resistance to what IS in the moment is one of the most common stressors.
Concept or Topic: Stop thinking about it! Mulling about how someone wronged you, stewing over the ills of the world, worrying about the future, or staying abreast of the latest drama in the lives of the rich and ridiculous—all of these things cause stress, none of them do you any good, and all of them are simply thoughts that you can control.
Step 4 – Rewire: If the stressor is a reoccurring negative memory or emotional trigger you have a little more work to do. An example of a trigger in your relationship would be if you’re arguing over dishes and all of a sudden you’re crying or threatening to leave. This is a good sign you have triggered a stress circuit and it may take a little investigating and self awareness to determine the real cause of your stress. Hint: it’s not the dishes.
To rewire a stress circuit, first you must identify and become aware of it, then:
1 – Face the trigger. Really allow the core cause of the trigger to come to the surface. Otherwise, you may inadvertently repress the emotion causing further damage.
2 – Create a new pathway. If a stress circuit is triggered, create a new joy circuit. For example, if thinking of your sister’s wedding immediately triggers a negative memory of when you embarrassed yourself, try this rewiring technique.
First, think of a memory from the wedding that has a strong positive emotion attached to it. Second, practice by thinking about the wedding and catch yourself every time the negative memory surfaces, immediately switching your thought to the positive one. Do this for 10 minutes. Lastly, as you go about your life, if the wedding comes to mind and you think of the embarrassing moment, catch yourself and switch to the positive memory. As you continue to do this you are rewiring your brain. The time it takes to switch from negative to positive will get smaller and smaller until one day a thought about the wedding will immediately bypass the negative memory and go straight to the positive one.
The unconscious mind, including the brain’s stress circuits, have a powerful effect on emotions and behaviors. The good news is that:
Once you identify an undesirable stress wire, you can choose to interrupt the circuit and rewire for joy.
By practicing awareness and conscious thought, you can take control of your emotions, your wires, your life, and your joy. For more techniques for rewiring your brain research Emotional Brain Training (EBT).
By Natalie Amsden