Thank you Elaine! Really helpful post – Emotional Snakes and Ladders – overcoming the negativity bias.
For many of us, emotions are things that happen us – sometimes a tornado that blows us off our feet or a sinking that silently drags us down. Or a feeling of elation as fleeting as the sun on a winter afternoon or a burst of joy – here and gone in an instant.
Recent research in neuroscience informs us that our brains are wired to be focussing on what is wrong with things. It is known as the « negativity bias ». Not only is the negativity bias an evolutionary trait of humans but we can see that it is also a trait of nations and maybe even the world. If we see nails everywhere, our only response will be a hammer, right ?
We know that putting on a happy face or ignoring suffering will not effectively allow you to « manage » your emotions, or « manage » your stress. Now we learn that the brain is being sculpted from each emotion, perception and experience and slowly but surely we accumulate a mind that is wired from our lived experiences.
Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. Rick Hansen
Many of us we have a limited repertoire of emotions. Under duress, and depending on your personality and how you have wired your brain over the years, we tend to have a fairly predictable emotional response – anger or tears, action or withdrawal, etc. If moderate to chronic stress becomes a regular state of affairs in our body mind – and this is the modern condition – it makes us vulnerable. Stress releases cortisal into the brain that stimulates an alarm bell which sets off the amygdala which in turn kicks off the fight and flight response. It is all good except when chronic stress becomes a way of life. Cortisol actually kills neurons in the hypocampus and what should be passing mental states become lasting neural states and gradually change the very structure of the brain so we become even more sensitive to stress.
Stess impairs our immune and digestion functions, depletes our neural transmitters, and makes us vulnerable to such emotional states as depression and frustration and anger, which in turn can result in becoming driven and anxious, or on-going feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
This is important knowledge : the brain is all set up for processing those negative emotions of fear, anxiety, anger. In fact, our brains are built to be continually scouting for what is amiss, wrong or potentially problematic so that we can have a better chance of surviving an attack or a danger in the environment. Or the subjective perception of one.
Rick Hanson, neuroscientist and meditation teacher refers to this « negativity bias » as being in the brain’s « red zone » – the brain, he says, is like velcro for negative emotions (they tend to stick) and teflon for positive emotions (they tend to slide quickly away). Simply put, the brain is good at learning from bad experiences and bad at learning from good experiences.
It is clear that we all need to overcome our brains’ hardwired negativity bias – but how ? Let’s first have a look at what emotions we are talking about. This Emotional Scale is taken from Abraham Hicks work and shows the way one emotion feeds another as we go progressively either up or down the emotional spiral :
This scale reminds me of the child’s game Snakes and Ladders. As you can see, you can’t get from Depression to Joy in one step – like a ladder you have to climb up or slide down – It may be good to know that Anger is already higher up on the emotional ladder than Despair ! A victim mentality is very low on the scale – right down there with Powerlessness. If you can play the Appreciation Game (a Law of Attraction Coaching Process) you can climb steadily the ladder right up to the top alongside Love and Joy.
Today we have abundant scientific research that allows us to understand what is happening in our body and minds when we experience what is commonly called « negative » emotions. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware that we are on a downward emotional spiral because we are accuustomed to it and we have put in place some coping strategies – until we suffer from ongoing back pain, or sciatica or a chronic illness and we have to pay attention.
Mindfulness practices propose that we start by bringing into our awareness our emotional state, as it is showing up in our bodies and as it is expressed in our narratives (the things that we are telling ourselves). But it is all very well to recognize that one is truly pissed off or melancholy or depressed – to seek the cure from an external source in the form of prescription medication or alternative remedies (millepertuis for depression..) but the source of the emotion often remains hidden from your awareness and so continues to generate the anxiety or the anger in more subterranean ways. The body never lies !
Living in constant stress has become a way of life. In our modern world we are training our brains to constantly zap from one screen to another, from one information bite to another. This actually contributes to avoidance strategies. Whatever the psyche cannot integrate, the body will express. We could go so far as to say that whatever the physical symptom, there is always an emotional and mental component to it. If we believe that we have no choice but to continue in a job we hate or in a relationship that has become empty or hateful then our brains will make this a reality.
To what extent can learning the skill of emotional literacy and learning how to climb up the emotional ladder affect our health, the quality of our life, our relationships and even our life expectancy ? When our cortisol levels are high due to stress and our brain is sending panic signals because of a perceived threat to our needs or well-being, the fight and flight response will take over, shutting down the other bodily functions that regulate our digestion, our immunity, our sleep and our ability to cultivate relationship. The stress response will impact our ability for growth and healing. In fact we only have two basic responses to life : contraction and expansion. When our cells are in contraction we are in defense mode and we cannot grow, learn or heal. When we are in expansion mode we can heal, we can develop pour capacities, and we can grow in all ways
The buddhist traditions understood this a long time ago. They taught that one could learn how to deliberately and purposefully create certain emotions – in order to create happiness in oneself and one’s environment – regardless of circumstances. I think of it as rather like cooking with the chemicals of emotions ! A dash of appreciation, a handful of gratitude, several whisks of compassion and before we know it the brain is releasing a chemical cocktail into the body – the cocktail of well being and expansion.
Research is indicating what the wisdom traditions have taught for millennia – When we are at ease, feeling that our needs for safety, satisfaction and affection are met, the level of stress hormones in the body will decrease and the chemistry of expansion will increase. I call the chemistry of expansion anything that allows our body to do what it is supposed to do – allow the immune system to be powerful, repair cells, destroy viruses, heal us deeply. Modern life is preventing our body from doing what it does best – heal us !
So what if emotional literacy was simply knowing how to shift the stress reaction to a deliberate response on behalf of well-being ?
In the illustration below from the Heart Math Institute, we see that very different signals between the heart and the brain are picked up when we are in these two different modes – the emotion of frustration creates havoc and confusion as the body interprets this as a situation that needs a stress response – fight, flight or paralysis !
On the other hand, the emotion of appreciation creates a heart frequency that is harmonious and steady – we are letting our body and mind know that
« I am safe, I am loved, I am competent » – this is why Affirmations when they are said with real intent and emotion can indeed heal.
Doing yoga and any exercise reduces our cortisol levels. This is why we feel better after exercise even if the problem that we are experiencing or the situation that is causing us anxiety remains unchanged. After 20 to 30 minutes of exercise we do not perceive the problem in the same helpless way.
This three-step process comes from Rick Hansen again. I have used it on myself and with my coaching clients.
Step 1 : Turn positive facts into positive experiences – Good things keep happening all around us, but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we hardly feel them. Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the faces of children, the smell of an orange, a memory from a happy vacation, a minor success at work, and so on. Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them—open up to them and let them affect you.
Step 2 : Savor the experience – Make positive experiences last by staying with them for 5, 10, even 20 seconds; don’t let your attention skitter off to something else. Savoring positive experiences intensifies our positive response to them. The longer something is held in awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it will be and the stronger the trace of it becomes in our memory. This allows you to internalize them so that you carry them inside you and don’t need to reach for them in the outer world.
Step 3 : Let the experience sink in – Finally, imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, like the warmth of the sun on your face, like water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.
We know that thoughts and emotions create vibrations and that these frequencies affect in turn what we are experiencing and what is happening to us.
Without going down the road of mastering our emotions and reducing the palette of our emotional experience, we can learn how to ride those choppy waves and intervene with mindfully and deliberately using this three step process to climb the emotional ladder, rewire our brain by looking for, savouring and intensifying positive experiences.
Now that you have learned that you can fabricate emotional experiences, memories and responses that contribute to your well-being and off-set the brain’s negativity bias, try paying attention to the next time you are dwelling on the negative. Start climbing up the emotional spiral rung by rung – this will not only re-wire your brain but you will have experiences of heart-centred emotions more often and for longer periods of time.