Bouncing back after a prolonged period of stress in your life is not easy. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one, been fired from a job, failed at something important, undergone a serious decline in health, or something else has occurred which you didn’t want to happen. Perhaps your attitude to life has changed as a result, and you are now much more insensitive (or much more sensitive) than you used to be, or often gloomy, or hyperactive, or confused, or over-focused — some unwanted change has occurred within your personality, it seems, and you can’t seem to recover your ‘mojo’ or respond to things as you used to.
All of us have some issues that we wish we could control to live the life we truly want. Anxiety and depression sap our energy so that even the idea of ‘control’ can seem exhausting.
But what weighs us down isn’t so much our thoughts as our emotions — the general, amorphous mass of feelings which often comes as baggage with our thoughts. Emotions are a huge part of our performance and productivity; they are the woof and warp of our lives.
Thirty years of research can tell us quite a bit about emotions. Psychologists and earlier thinkers used to think that thought was disrupted by emotion, but neuroscientist Richard Davidson performed several experiments and studies and revealed some startling findings about emotions:
1. Our ‘emotional brains’ often overlap with that our rational, thinking brains.
2. Everyone has a unique emotional profile like a unique fingerprint.
3. Our emotional style is laid down in our early years by the genes we inherited from our parents and experiences we have.
Does that mean we cannot change it?
No, apparently emotional circuitry isn’t fixed.
With some exercise and consistency, we can adjust our neural connections.
Davidson identified six emotional 'styles' which refer to an individual's consistent responses to life:
Sensitivity to Context
Some people are at the extremes (too positive or too negative) while some fall in the middle of each. There’s no ‘right answer’ — what’s important is how the pattern of responses is affecting your life.
Resilience reveals whether you easily ‘bounce back’ after a major setback in life or collapse. When someone we love dies, or some other major cataclysmic event takes place, recovery takes time. People who are faster to recover have a stronger connection with the amygdala and that part of the brain involved in promoting positivity; slower recoverers have less of a connection.
As we know, the amygdala is responsible for detecting real or imagined discrepancies in your environment and preparing for emergencies. It also stores memories of events and relates them to future events. Hyperactivity in the amygdala produces fear and anxiety disorders. If you’ve been following this series of articles, you probably have a pretty good idea of what a strong connection to the amygdala feels like. What you want to know is what to do about it.
If you think you’re not recovering from a major life trauma quickly enough, then it makes sense that you should be working on increasing the activity in your prefrontal cortex, that part of your brain which forwards positivity.
How do you do that? It starts with simple exercises like breathing and meditation, but you also need to pay more attention when good things that happen to you.
When you do, you strengthen the connection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala that promotes balance in your emotions.
Think of it as an athletic training regime, but in this case the ‘muscles’ involved are mental rather than physical. If you have a very active ‘amygdala muscle’, this is throwing you off-balance: you need to work on your ‘positivity muscle’ or you’ll keep falling over.
One Active Meditation technique to help you with this is to keep a Positivity Journal — this can be a notebook or a page on a device in which you note everything good that happens, each day. This has the advantage of making you look, rather than just sighing and saying ‘Oh well, there’s nothing good happening’ and giving up. Try to make at least one entry every day, and resist the temptation to get cynical or stop keeping the journal. Of course, when you first start writing these things down, you will probably feel that the good things are inconsequential or feeble compared with the bad, just as when you first start physical exercise, your muscles are weak and ready to give up. Start lightly, but persist; give yourself rewards for persisting if needed. Before long, your Journal will begin to grow rich with more and more experiences and observations, small and large.
What about a Negativity Journal? Don’t worry, your amygdala already keeps one — that’s the problem!
What if something bad happens, overshadowing the good? After a while, any negative incident will start to look like an anomaly which could have happened to anyone, rather than evidence of a malign Fate, out to get you. By challenging the prevalence of negative thoughts, you can begin to reframe your distress.
Social Intuition is about picking up social signals. You have an inborn ability to understand other people from their body language alone.
A person at the positive extreme of Social Intuition shows a high level of ability in this area with low to moderate amygdala activity. Low levels of ability are characterised by failure to make eye contact and difficulty identifying what emotion another’s face is conveying. If you’re not able to ‘read’ people well in a non-verbal way, your amygdala is bound to be more active and you are going to be more stressed.
To improve your social intuition, you have to pay attention to the reactions and expressions of others. You can do this is through ‘people watching’: go out somewhere where there is a flow of people, like a railway station or a café, and focus on a few people, observing their faces, reactions and body language. Pay particular attention also to their eyes because they signal someone’s true emotional state. Becoming more adept at reading the language of faces and eyes makes others more meaningful and interesting to you, but also defuses your amygdala, because you are gradually de-mystifying a major part of your environment.
Self-Awareness is about your own body's signals, emotions and what they tell you.
Some people are really oblivious to what is happening inside them; those suffering from anxiety and depression may have a greater connection to the insula, which is a viscerotopic map of the body, receiving signals from the visceral organs and sending signals back instructing them what to do, such as ‘increase heart rate’ or ‘inhale more rapidly’.
You can immediately see why a high level of self-awareness might sometimes cause an anxiety disorder. For example, you notice a sudden increase in heart rate and automatically interpret it as a sign of heart problems.
You can learn to reframe your internal body cues in a positive way instead of overreacting to them. Leaping to false conclusions that some aspect of what you are feeling is deadly is hard to avoid if you have this insula connection. Obviously, it’s best to see a doctor to find to what is going on physically, but doctors aren’t always immediately available, and Googling your symptoms is not advisable if you’re trying to reduce anxiety.
So what should you do?
You could do worse than getting a full physical check-up with a proper, balanced diagnosis of anything found and a programme of actions to take. But failing that, you probably need to reduce the over-connection with your insula, and you can begin to do this with meditation.
One Active Meditation technique is to relax as usual using standard meditation and then repeat the following mantras to yourself:
‘I’m responsible for what I think and feel every moment.’
‘I’m the curator of what occurs in my mind/heart.’
‘I’m the gardener — I plant and feed and weed and cultivate what grows in my mind/heart.’
‘I’m responsible for often worrying about my physical health, for creating and implanting the fear that something terrible will happen and that I will end up in pain, in hospital or suddenly dead. Because I'm responsible, I can gently stop doing these things.’
You don’t have to use all of these and you can vary them as you wish, but as you repeat these over time, and possibly through several sessions of meditation, you will begin to perceive that your mental/emotional state is a kind of mirror — it doesn’t arrive in your mind from some mysterious external source, but is actually projected there by you and then experienced by you.
We’ll look at the remaining three emotional styles next time.