It’s hard to believe how much we as a society crammed into the past twelve months. Pandemic stress, protests, economic flux, heated politics, job instability… and how can we forget the toilet paper supply problems? For a while there, it seemed like we were waking up to stress-bomb after stress-bomb, with no end in sight. With so much coming at you for so long, it’s understandable if you found that you’ve slipped into a mental state that defaults to negativity. Fortunately, with some practice, you can rewire your brain back to a more positive outlook.
Backstory: your brain has a negativity bias
Studies show that your brain remembers negative events more vividly than it remembers positive events. That could be rooted in our survival mechanisms, because it teaches us to avoid similar events that have bad outcomes.
So, when you look back on the past year, you’re more likely to recall things like school closures, canceled sports seasons, grocery store supply problems, and civil unrest, and gloss over things like extra time to connect with your family and getting really good at making sourdough bread.
Knowing that we have our natural tendencies making it a little bit harder to get back to positive thinking, we can recognize it for what it is, instead of seeing our negative thinking as a personal failure.
Positivity and negativity are like muscles
If you think of positive thinking and negative thinking like muscles, consider how much exercise the negative muscle got over the past year. Whether we wanted to or not, we’ve done a lot of heavy “reps” strengthening our negativity while letting our positive thinking go soft.
With a few mental exercises, you can start to flip the balance, starting today.
How to train your brain toward more positive thinking
Practice finding the good (even if you have to dig deep at first)
Think of your brain pathways as walking pathways. You may be apprehensive, and cautious about a new hiking trail, for example. But if you start walking that trail every day, eventually you go without hesitating.
Your brain works the same way. When you repeatedly take a certain action or think a certain way, it becomes more effortless, and more natural every time.
It may be difficult to find the positive in situations at first, but the more you try, the easier it becomes.
Notice + Shift + Rewire
The Notice + Shift + Rewire (NSR) technique was created by Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, authors of Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. NSR is a practical-minded method of getting yourself out of your own head and instead into the present moment.
Here’s the quick-and-dirty explanation of how it’s done:
- Notice. The first step involves noticing your thoughts, without judgment. Simply observe them.
- Shift. The Shift step involves shifting your thoughts into the present moment. Be where you are right now, physically and mentally.
- Rewire. Finally, you fixate all of your focus and attention, for at least a few minutes, on the here and now. The idea is that repeating these three steps helps create and strengthen new brain pathways that help you become more mindful and present.
Your thoughts may wander back to where they were when you started, but that’s okay. You can go back to Step 1. It takes practice.
Get Intentional About Gratitude
When you don’t have a gratitude practice, gratitude feels like something that happens to you, when something nice comes your way.
You actually have a say in how often you feel gratitude – all you have to do is look for things to be thankful for. Some people have a gratitude journal they write a few lines in every day. Some people set a chime on their phone 3-4 times a day when they will think of something to be grateful for. Other people write thank-you cards to friends and family.
Why go through all of that? Feeling gratitude actually orients your brain toward positive thoughts and can even release “happy” brain chemicals that lift your mood. It is so effective that researchers are exploring its value in a psychotherapeutic setting.
Think of this past year as showing us all what we’re made of. We can all look for the positive and have gratitude that we will come out on the other side stronger than ever.