Take A Rest Worry Brain, Make Room For Rewards

Take A Rest Worry Brain, Make Room for Rewards.   Through no fault of our own, our default mode of thinking has a tendency to be more associated with the “what can go wrong type thinking” than the “what can go right type thinking.”  The good news is it can be changed.  More on this later.  Yesterday, I wasn’t feeling so well.  For no apparent reason, I was feeling anxious and jittery.   Wanting relief, I looked to my bookshelf for a book to distract myself.  I found a lovely photo instead.   A bent corner of it was sticking out between some books, beckoning.   I blew the dust off.  An older picture of a family vacation to Los Angeles in 2017 came into view.   Though temporary, the picture provided instant relief.   In the picture, my wife, daughter Madeline, and son Ethan, are all squeezed together wearing bug-eyed sunglasses and feeling pretty darn good as I recall.   We were at one of our favorite destinations in Southern California,Venice Beach, aka, Muscle Beach.  As I looked at the picture, I longed to be back in that carefree moment.  As I was about to set the picture back down, I made a concerted effort to commit it to memory.   I wanted it to be “available” to me without a physical copy.   

Later that day, I thought about the picture again and had a very different experience.  I started thinking about the way we love to look at photos to remind ourselves of the good times.   I then wondered to myself, why do we seem to have this relationship with the past that is quite the opposite of how we relate to picture albums?  With picture albums we celebrate, reminisce and attempt to relive precious moments.   Yet, when we think of the past in general, our accounting of it (at least mine) is fused with complaints, disappointments, frustration.   And that’s just the watered down version.   Sometimes, it can be downright overwhelming when we aren’t in the best of moods.   What we did not accomplish, what we only wished we had done differently or not come to the forefront as uninvited guests, consuming our attention like the only model the nightly news would have us believe in — a world gone mad.  Well, the obvious answer to the questions above is that the photo album contains pictures of the happy, relaxing times and not visa versa, duh.    If I’m real honest with myself, I do too much discounting of the good events that take place, despite the fact that they outnumber the bad, unless I’m looking at a picture album.    I’m not saying this is true for everyone.    
On the contrary, I think we humans spend plenty of time replaying past successes and pleasant memories, that is, at least when sharing with others.   In private though, I’m not so sure that’s what really is going on.  I think our self-talk may be very different.   For one, I know that I engage in too much negative thinking.  I’m not talking about where you examine at a mistake (eg eating unhealthy food) and try to avoid it the next time.  What I tend to do is look at past mistakes and wrongs and wonder why the hell I didn’t know better.  It’s a bit of the perfectionist in me.   Don’t tell me hindsight is 20/20!  I hate that phrase.   After thinking about this some more, I came up with two explanations of why people (myself included) engage in this kind of distorted thinking. 
 
One isn’t my idea really.  It’s a widely accepted idea advanced in neuroscience.   This theory states that we have natural survival responses that manufacture anxious thoughts for a reason.   Doing so protects ourselves from potential dangers and pitfalls.  Sigh of relief!  We actually need to feel healthy anxiety to help us prepare for the uncertainty which always lies ahead.   To understand why this is so, picture a day in the life of the Neanderthal, our distant cave dwelling ancestor.  When you wake up (assuming your cave wasn’t smoked out by a competing warring tribe) you feel relief because you are still alive.  Unfortunately, you can’t dwell on that pleasant thought too long as the next predator is surely going to notice.  Thankfully, it’s not the kind of mentality we must embrace to survive nowadays.   However, to overcome eons of anxiety spent on overdrive is not so easy, and especially so in today’s world. 
  
Back then, blinking your eyes could cost you your life.  To survive in such a world, the brain had to adapt a fight or flight instinct to increase chances of survival.    Fast forward to today, after millions of years of evolution, our fight or flight instinct still remains intact.  Hopefully, we will never meet with dire circumstance requiring its use.  The thing is that our limbic brain cannot rest, as it’s always on standby.  In fact, I learned that it may be even more activated then when it was for our ancestors!  Why? Because we have too many stimuli competing for our limited attention, from text messages to video games, to emails, not to mention driving on the  freeway.   
So my call to action is to begin rewiring both the way we think about the past and the future.   Regarding the past, instead of thinking of the keys you left at home or being late for a meeting, or whatever your mind wants to fix on, think what did I gain from having this experience?  Odds are that although many of these “negative” experiences were unpleasant, there was a silver lining that led to something good.   As for the future, each time you experience calm in the face of stress, know that you are rewiring your brain for future calmness the next time you’re under stress.   If you cannot think of anything good about a bad experience, don’t force it.  It’s the effort that counts.   

Oh, and regarding that picture, I may never have found it unless I wasn’t agitated.   In the end, I did find it and what a reward it was. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Shalini Kaushik
Shalini Kaushik
1 year ago

Thanks for sharing!! Very insightful

Patricia
Patricia
1 year ago

I love this article. I find myself musing over the past with great fondness, but those happy memories then turn into a longing for days gone by: when my kids were little, or for family and friends who have passed on. It is so easy to move to the negative. I appreciate your insight.
Thank you!!

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