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