The benefits of being thankful and eliminating the negative
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By Steven Campbell  November 16, 2012 12:00 am

When you make your next mistake today, you’ll mutter, “How could I have been so stupid?”  Your brain’s response? “Oh, I can tell you that!  Do you remember that dumb thing you did yesterday…and the week before…and the year before that? And…remember how you were the slowest reader in the third grade?”

But it doesn’t stop there. Some of us extract a mental list of the dumbest things we’ve ever done, and then review those negative memories.

But listen (and this is important), your brain doesn’t know those memories happened a week ago, or a year ago.  It’s recording them again…but this time, as if they are happening right now.

And then we carry negativity with us.  (Psychologists call this a “negative bias.”)

 You see, your brain's fundamental principle in life is to keep you safe. The two almond-shaped organisms deep in the brain doing this are called the amygdala (a-mig-dala).  Their primary job is to process emotions and memory by sensing both negative and positive experiences. When they sense the negative ones, they instantly store them in your long-term memory so you will both immediately react and remember them. (In contrast, it takes around 12 seconds for positive experiences to be registered.)
As an aside, the amygdala plays a major role in learning. In fact, the first question your child’s amygdala asks when learning something new is, “Is it safe to learn?” This is the reason that children need to feel safe and so secure when they are learning at school and at home.

Do we therefore just sit back and resign ourselves to having a “negativity bias?” Absolutely not, for your amygdala has another function, and that is to tell your brain to release dopamine (dope-a-mean) when something positive happens. And dopamine is the brain’s neurotransmitter making you feel pleasant.  Studies indicate people with extraverted (reward-seeking) personalities have higher levels of dopamine than people with introverted personalities.  (Cocaine is so very addictive because it acts directly on the dopamine system.)

Now, let’s bring this together for Thanksgiving.

Did you know, and this always surprises both our audiences and people reading either our blog (www.anintellgentheart.com) or our book, your brain doesn't know the difference between reality, fiction or just past events. (This explains why we feel scared while watching a scary movie, even though we know it's not real.)

And deciding to be thankful (and yes, our brains can actually do that) can act as a “mental movie" releasing dopamine, which has a positive effect on your emotional well-being.

In fact, Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy from Duke University says, "If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product.”  He recommends thankfulness be used as a strategy to enhance our wellness.

So, do we clinch our fists, and proclaim “I will be thankful” when going through some really hard times?  Absolutely not!  (You and I both know that doesn’t really work.)

However, according to Dr. Mitch Wasden, of Ochsner Medical Center, "We can't feel rewards and threats unless we focus our attention on them. Many good and bad things happen in our life every day, but until they come to our own attention, Dopamine is not released that allows us to feel good or bad."

This goes right along with the fact our brain locks onto what you decide is most important. When children first learn to ride a bike, they may be warned, “Now don’t run into that rock down the road!” So they lock their eyes onto that rock while they’re peddling.  What happens? Bam, right into that rock!  That’s how our brains work. (By the way, that’s the reason worrying is nothing more than negative goal-setting).

So, “Gratitude can actually counteract the negativity bias by focusing our attention on the 'good stuff.'" says Dr. Renee Jain a certified coach of positive psychology. "A little focus can go a long way to improving one's psychological, social, and physical health."

One of the most well-known practices uncovered from this research is known as the Three Blessings Exercise. "Each night before going to bed, you write down three good things (ordinary or extraordinary) that happened to you during the day. Studies reveal those who continue this exercise for one week straight can increase their happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for up to a six-month period."

And the basis for all this (which has come to be the focus of everything I teach,) is your brain believes everything you tell it.  So when you decide to be thankful, your brain just says, “OK!”  Now…is it true? You know what?  Your brain doesn’t even care.  All it cares about is what you tell it.  So you say it, it believes it. And then when you lock onto gratefulness, your brain will do everything it can to make it true in your life.
Wow!

Steven Campbell’s videoed seminars and blog are now on-line. Simply go to www.anintelligentheart.com for more information. He also is the author of "Making Your Mind Magnificent" and conducts "The Winners Circle" every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. He can be contacted at 480-5007 or steve@anintelligentheart.com.

Post Your Comments:
PamPeekeMD
November 17, 2012
This is an incredibly important article and I am grateful you published it. ;) I'll be reposting this to my patients and readers who are working valiantly through my holistic approach to reverse the wreckage food addiction has wrought on their VTAs. The tool kit for amping dopamine receptors can never be too big for recovering addicts craving whatever their substance of choice was.
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