Staying positive and moving forward

Current events have left many of us stunned and disbelieving and terribly concerned about the future. I have seen people weep and shake with fear. It is often difficult to keep my own fear, sadness, and anger at bay.

I keep asking myself these questions:
How can I stay on course during these rough times?
How can I help protect people who feel threatened?
What can I be doing to turn things around?

This post is meant to help myself – and others – answer these questions for ourselves.

I will begin with what I think is a startlingly empowering bit of knowledge from neuroscience and end with links to a variety of other resources that might be of interest.

Using our brain to help us stay positive 

One of the most intriguing ideas I have learned lately is the idea of the brain’s default mode network. This is circuitry that the brain automatically uses to save energy. Our 3-pound brain uses 20% of our energy (about 10 times more than you’d expect based on its weight) and therefore the brain needs ways to tap down its energy requirements.

The amazing thing about the default mode network is the kind of thinking that occurs when this circuitry is invoked. When in the default mode network we tend to get into recursive rumination. This is the kind of thinking where you play loops of “she said this and then I should have said that” in our mind. We’ve all been there. Reliving scenarios where we think we should have said or done something differently.  A little of this kind of analysis can be very useful and helps us learn from our experience and follow an alternate path next time. But in the default mode network we easily get caught in the loop and we keep pondering and pondering. Instead of analyzing the situation once or twice we think about it 40 times. We “can’t get it out of our mind.” And, as our experience will validate, this kind of rumination almost always puts us in a negative mood. We get grumpy and upset and annoyed with ourselves.

The empowering thing is that there is a way out of this negative spiral. The circuitry of the default mode network cannot be invoked when your brain is doing a few other kinds of things. The default mode network cannot be activated when (1) we are focusing intently on a task, or (2) when we are focusing outward with concern for others, or (3) when we are deeply experiencing sensory input.

So how does this translate to something we can use? Let’s say we are ruminating about something – perhaps how we’ll get through that family discussion during the holidays when there are different political viewpoints represented. Our mind is endlessly picturing what person X might say about the current situation and what we should say to counter their comment. And we find ourselves getting angry and dreading our discussion – we are in full blown default mode network thinking. It’s an unproductive, and negative place to be.  The glorious thing is we have the power to snap ourselves out of this kind of thinking. We can do it by (1) focusing on a goal and getting to work. We can (2) go out into the world and take care of the people around us. And (3) we can participate in mindfulness activities that ask us to zero in on the present moment – to follow our breath (the most common kind of mindfulness practice), or to walk so that we feel our feet connected to the earth (often called walking meditation), or slowly, carefully eat a raisin and pay attention to its taste and texture on our tongue (mindful eating). By slowing down, noticing our bodies, breathing deeply, we can snap ourselves out of the negativity. And when we do that, we can re-energize ourselves and replenish our spirit for the work ahead of us.  We need to be warriors to turn this thing around. And warriors need to be strong and confident.

Resources for staying positive and strong

Here are some links you may want to explore.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron is wise and plain spoken. Her classic book When Things Fall Apart has many lessons for us.

Here’s a wonderful interview about how to be “engaged” and move things forward without being angry.

Meggin McIntosh is known as the PhD of Productivity and has a plethora of useful resources. The most apt program for the current climate might be her Staying Positive in a Freaked Out World program.

A recent post from the academic coaching and writing folks on staying courageous

A recent article on protest movements that get results

Site with a variety of mindfulness articles and activities


Let’s keep ourselves positive and make 2017 a good year!

3 thoughts on “Staying positive and moving forward

  1. Hello, professor Ruth. After the Open House, I have often visited your page and read the postings. I am glad to read this new one. It seems brainresearch gives us many important clues to solve the problems we confront in daily life. These are all useful tips for me nowadays! By the way, I have a trivial question: Is there any effect that makes a problem more difficult to solve? I felt that when I confront a problem and once I feel it’s difficult, it becomes a much harder problem from that moment on. Is it also the result of the recursive rumination? Then we have to be more positive to be a better researcher. 🙂
    Thank you for your posting, and have a positive new year!

    • DaYoung, Thank you for your comment. I want to distinguish ‘rumination’ from determined and persistent thinking about a tough problem. When we ruminate, we often look inward at something personal that happened to us. Therefore, rumination is usually described as being self-referential. When one confronts a difficult problem one usually uses a different type of thinking that could be considered analytical. Here is a guide to some literature you might want to investigate. David Jonassen wrote some very interesting work on different kinds of problems and different kinds of problem-solving. David Perkins has written about why some kinds of concepts are difficult – he calls this “troublesome knowledge.”

      • Thank you for your advice. I found the papers of David Jonassen and David Perkins as you recommended, and those are all useful and interesting. The typology of problems of Jonassen lets me look back on the problems I have solved before and categorize them. It seems educators with the concept of five kinds of troublesome knowledge in mind can help students to solve difficult problems. Among those five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’, what do you think is the particularly important one that engineering educators must concentrate on?

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