Teach Mindfulness; Invite Happiness

From Edutopia

By objective measures, our young people are more anxious, more depressed, and have more psychopathology in general than students did a few decades ago. This has important implications for educators, school administrators, and society at large. What if our traditional school systems are unwittingly contributing to the problem — and what if a relatively simple practice could help?

Sense of Failure

As we are all well aware, the current educational system is narrowing its definition of what defines student success. It’s almost all cognitive knowing, as evidenced by standardized testing. The pros and cons of that system have been widely debated, so I won’t rehash them here. However, a side effect of this system is decreased flexibility in how we define success, and we are leaving many students with internal beliefs that they are failures.

A young person could be a prodigy in one or more areas (kinesthetic, inter-personal, musical, ecological), yet still grow up thinking that he or she is a failure based on messaging given by the schools. As some students’ light dims and self-doubt grows, there’s a good chance that they won’t grow into their full brilliance and power. This is a tragic outcome that’s a loss for all of us — yet it’s also an avoidable outcome.

How Mindfulness Can Help

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to present-moment experience and doing so with kindness and curiosity. It is not cognitive but sensory, and so taps into and strengthens different but vitally important parts of the brain that have been neglected by traditional education. One crucial attribute of mindfulness is that it is practiced without judgment. Many of our students are so hard on themselves and their internal critic is so loud that just a few moments of being given permission to not judge can bring huge relief to body and mind. I have seen it bring students to tears.

A triangle with Thoughts at the top, Emotions and Sensations at the bottom, and Mindful Awareness in the middle

Just a few weeks ago, I was introducing the practice to some graduate students in a highly competitive health sciences program. Presumably they were all successes in the conventional system. I started by explaining the triangle of awareness to them — how thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations all affect each other. I then led them through a guided contemplation to illustrate the point. They were invited to imagine a stressful situation and notice how they were feeling in their body, what emotions they were experiencing, and what thoughts they were having. By noticing the thoughts as the final step in the process, students can identify them as just thoughts they’re having and not truths that must be believed, especially if these thoughts are causing unpleasant physical sensations and negative emotions.

We then did a five-minute mindful breathing exercise. The students closed their eyes and were invited to let the sensation of breathing command their full attention. When they noticed their attention wandering, they were allowed to notice where it went, but were encouraged to gently and kindly escort their awareness back to the breath.

During the discussion after the practice, one young woman was in tears. She had noticed her thoughts telling her that she was probably breathing wrong and wasn’t good at it. This led to tightness in her chest, her heart racing, and a feeling of anxiety. In those few minutes, she recognized how her thoughts have been contributing to her anxiety all these years and also causing discomfort in her body. The ridiculousness of not being good at breathing revealed to her in stark clarity how insidious and unfair her inner critic was. She was excited to have made this connection and to have new tools for working with it.

Honoring True Genius

I think this anecdote illustrates what is going on for many of our students. Sadly, many of them never make the connection between mind and body, and just keep sinking into those self-defeating thoughts as they worry about how they will measure up on the next standardized test. These thoughts are contributing to the rise in mental illness and inhibiting students from reaching their full human potential.

There is now ample evidence that mindfulness practice enhances positive emotions (PDF). Imagine the possibilities if we offered this to young people with developing brains! What if we helped all students make this simple connection and gave them the tools to strengthen their own inner knowing? What if we gave them permission to honor their true genius, even if we can’t measure it on a standardized test? What if we practiced full disclosure and acknowledged that there are many different kinds of intelligence, and that some cannot be measured by conventional means? What if schools gave equal time and emphasis to cultivating things like kindness and compassion?

It might just change everything.

Youth and depression: Why it’s crucial to intervene early

From The Vancouver Sun

Shilpa Narayan was 14 years old when the distress she had tried to hide for years erupted into tears after a teacher asked how her day was going.

“I looked at her and I just started crying,” she recalls.

At that moment, thanks to intervention by her teacher, Narayan took the first step toward treatment for the anxiety and depression she had suffered from since the age of 12.

“Everything was scary, everything was daunting,” said Narayan, now 20. “Some days I couldn’t speak. At the end of the day, I felt I had run multiple marathons but hadn’t won any of them.”

Anxiety disorder and depression were clinical terms the teenager didn’t understand at the time. She just knew that she felt overwhelmed.

Narayan’s teacher took her to the school counsellor.

“She probably saved my life at that point,” Narayan said.

But many children and teens suffering from a mental disorder never get help.

According to the Children’s Health Policy Centre at Simon Fraser University, 70 per cent of the estimated 84,000 children and youth in B.C. who suffer from a mental disorder do not receive treatment.

CHPC director Dr. Charlotte Waddell said child and youth mental health need to be a high priority — and early intervention is key.

“If you wait until someone becomes an adult, you’re leaving that young person with sometimes five or 10 years of severe symptoms,” she said.

“That young person has stepped off the developmental pathway that they needed to be on to be able to complete school, the chance of going to university or entering the workforce.”

Studies have found that 50 to 75 per cent of mental disorders start in childhood. Anxiety is common in early childhood, as is depression in the teen years. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth across the country, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Narayan can trace her first signs of anxiety and depression back to elementary school.

“I was lost, confused, I was angry at myself because I just knew there was something there and it was bad … I tried to push it away,” she said.

She hid her struggles from her parents and tried to mask what she was feeling by pushing herself into sports and clubs.

“I didn’t want to be trapped in my own thoughts,” she said. “I told myself it was just a phase I would get through.”

But Narayan began to have anxiety attacks and would start shaking in class. Plagued by fears of failure and of disappointing her parents, she felt the stigma of mental illness.

Roxanne Pope, the teacher in whom Narayan confided, said she became worried after noticing the teen’s demeanour had changed.

“She’s usually very outgoing. She started to be withdrawn and started to disclose she was struggling,” said Pope.

Narayan recalled trying to verbalize how she felt when she met with the school counsellor.

“All I could tell her was that I hate the way I’m doing things. I hate myself,” she said.

School counsellors, doctors or nurse practitioners are the first point of contact for many children and youth seeking help, says Waddell. A referral might then be made to a child and youth mental health team run by the Ministry for Children and Family Development.

Cognitive behavioural therapy — which aims to change patterns of thinking and behaviour through one-on-one or group counselling — is the preferred treatment for anxiety and depression. It has more lasting results than medication, which is less effective and can have side-effects, according to the CHPC.

The counselling services offered by the ministry are good, said Waddell, but often they aren’t available or there aren’t enough spaces.

“We simply don’t have enough services on offer,” she said.

Narayan’s school counsellor referred her to community counselling at Surrey’s Pacific Community Resource Centre. The service was free, but the counsellors were graduate students on practicum, meaning they would switch every six months. It made it difficult for Narayan to establish trust.

“I’m having to re-tell everything, because there’s only so much they have in their notebooks,” said Narayan. “No one is at fault in this. It’s just how the system works.”

At one point in high school, she filled out a referral form for a ministry-funded counselling service. She had an intake interview, but was told that her conditions were not severe enough and was put on a nine-month waitlist.

“What is the definition of bad enough? Is it self-harm to the point that you’re in the hospital?” said Narayan.

“If someone is going through the extreme, please take them in. But at the same time, don’t tell someone else that they aren’t bad enough (to receive treatment).”

When medication was suggested to Narayan, she was upset by the idea that she had a chemical imbalance. On her first round of anti-depressants, she suffered side-effects, and when her anxiety mounted she ended up hospitalized.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Chow said seeing patients wait for treatment spurred him to start Youth Wellness Associates, a youth psychiatry clinic with expedited treatment access times.

“We do have a lot of youth and children who wait on waiting lists or who never get help at all and, as a result, encounter significant disability. Ultimately some, unfortunately, die from their illness through suicide,” said Chow.

At Youth Wellness, which is based at the Three Story Clinic in Vancouver, child and adolescent psychiatrists assess patients within four weeks of referral. They are then referred to other specialists, providers and clinics.

Depending on where a child or youth lives in the province and even within the Lower Mainland, access to care varies, said Chow.

“Basically, the further east you go, past Boundary Road, the longer the waits get,” he said.

He said as populations have shifted, he’s noticed fewer referrals from Vancouver and increasing demand in Surrey, Langley, Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, where there are more young people.

Many of Chow’s patients are intercepted early in their illness or when symptoms are mild to moderate. He said too often the system forces people to wait for treatment until they’re very sick or suicidal.

“It’s a fundamental principle of medicine that the earlier that you can intervene in an illness, the better the outcome will be,” Chow said.

Narayan, now a student at SFU and an advocate for mental health, continues to receive treatment. She credits her ability to get through high school and transition to university to five teachers who banded together to help her navigate the system and get access to care.

They also encouraged her to open up to her parents, who are proud of her advocacy work.

“Living with my anxiety and living with my depression, I find it’ll never get easy for me,” she said. “But I feel like through my life I will learn tools that will help me manage it better. We expect ourselves to turn off the monsters, but how realistic is that? Rather, let’s say, let’s turn down the volume of the monsters.”

Eight years after first experiencing the signs of mental illness, Narayan told her story to an auditorium of Grade 7 girls at Elgin Park Secondary in Surrey. They were the same age she was when her anxiety and depression began.

Naryan asked the group how many felt stressed. Most raised their hands.

“Know that you’re not alone,” she told them.

Ashley MacDonald was hospitalized numerous times as a child due to depression, including a stay in an adult psychiatric ward.
Ashley MacDonald was hospitalized numerous times as a child due to depression, including a six-month stay in an adult psychiatric ward.

Services struggle amid surge in youth reporting mental health issues 

Ashley Macdonald began suffering from symptoms of anxiety in Grade 9, along with depression, an eating disorder and a self-harm addiction. At times she couldn’t get out of bed or eat. 

“It felt like you were very heavy, like you’re just draped over, covered in something thick,” Macdonald said of her depression. 

At crisis points she would call 911 and was hospitalized multiple times — including a six-month stint in an adult psychiatric ward when she was in Grade 12. 

After her health stabilized, she moved into a transitional living program with Options Community Services Society. 

Now 19, Macdonald is able to study and work. She attributes her progress to cognitive-behavioural therapy. 

She’s one of thousands of children and young people in B.C. who have been hospitalized due to mental health issues — and the province’s counsellors and clinicians are struggling to cope.

Canada-wide, emergency department visits for youth who have mental disorders rose 45 per cent between 2006/2007 and 2013/2014, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. In-patient hospitalizations increased by 37 per cent in the same period.

According to the Ministry of Health, approximately 3,800 children and youth were hospitalized for mental health and substance-use related reasons in 2013-2014 in B.C.

B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver has 20 beds as part of a provincial in-patient program for children and youth, as well as six beds in a psychiatric emergency unit. In the rest of the province, there are six in Prince George, eight in Kelowna and 10 at Surrey Memorial Hospital. 

Dr. Matthew Chow, a child psychiatrist with the counselling group Youth Wellness Associates in Vancouver, said that due to the lack of beds in youth wards, youth sometimes end up in an adult psychiatric ward.

The stigma of mental illness is evident in how the health system treats patients with mental health disorders compared to, for example, young cancer patients, Chow said.

“We treat them (young cancer patients) really, really well — we do everything in our power to make it a comforting experience because we know it’s scary,” he said. “Yet, in the mental health system, we don’t do that. We have people being put in adult units or being treated by adult specialists, and it’s really frightening for them, and it’s not fair.”

Macdonald still attends counselling and hopes to inspire others to seek help for their mental health struggles. 

“I feel like there’s a lot more people out there who are struggling than what we actually see,” she said. “It’s kind of this big, dark secret out there.” 

She is now a youth representative with the Child & Youth Mental Health and Substance Use collaborative, an initiative funded by Doctors of B.C. and the provincial government to increase timely support for those in need.

The collaborative was established in June 2013 and has since grown to 64 local teams across the province, involving around 2,600 people. 

“It was formed in response to family doctors identifying that children and youth and families did not have sufficient access to mental health and substance use services,” said Valerie Tregillus, project director of the collaborative.

“We were being told by school counsellors and clinicians and doctors that they feel they’re facing a tsunami. I think that there’s no question that there’s underfunding for this high-need population and the return on investment is massive.”

 • Rosemary Newton is a graduate of Langara College’s journalism program and recipient of the 2016 Jeani Read-Michael Mercer Scholarship

CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email vantips@postmedia.com.

Coaching your way to better mental health

For The Star

Mental-health coaches, the first of their kind in Canada, are helping those with depression, anxiety and at-risk drinking

Each day, Antonio was slipping deeper into depression. His parents were ill, he feared being laid off from work and he was unhappy in his relationship, which he had moved to Toronto for.

But when he started thinking about suicide — and at one point two years ago came “really, really close” to taking his own life — he knew he needed help.

“I felt jailed, trapped,” says Antonio, who asked that his last name not be published. “I was in a very dark place.”

He confided in his family doctor, who suggested he participate in the Partners Project run out of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It’s a three-year study looking at the effectiveness of a mental-health coach — the first role of its kind in Canada — who calls patients with depression, anxiety and at-risk drinking, the most common mental-health problems in primary care.

Adam Whisler, one of the mental-health coaches, says patient response has been largely positive.

“It’s been really awesome to talk to people who would otherwise be completely isolated or who are very nervous to go and speak with someone in person (about mental health),” he says. “By talking to them over the phone, it can help them drop their guard a bit and feel more comfortable.”

The Partners Project, which started two years ago, is meant to bridge primary-care providers and the larger mental-heath services community.

The way it works is a family physician, or nurse practitioner, refers a patient to the project. A treatment plan is designed by a psychiatrist, who supervises three specially trained mental-health coaches.

It’s the coaches who regularly call the patients, usually weekly for about 20 to 30 minutes, to check in and provide support. The coaches then share the information from those calls with the overseeing psychiatrist, whose treatment suggestions may include medication, different dosages, blood work and referrals for formal therapy. Those recommendations are then given to the patient’s doctor so he or she can implement them.

The program is meant to assist family doctors, who don’t always have the resources when dealing with mental health and addictions issues, and may have limited time for followup and support. It can also prove crucial for those in rural and remote areas, where there are limited mental-heath services.

In Ontario, 1.3 million people suffer from co-existing physical and mental-health illness, and many aren’t getting the treatment they need because the health-care system isn’t designed to focus on both at the same time. That’s according to the Medical Psychiatry Alliance (MPA), which is supporting the study that’s being funded by Bell Let’s Talk.

At first, Antonio was reluctant to participate because he didn’t want to share personal details on the phone with someone he had never met. But he couldn’t afford a therapist and was desperate. So he gave it a try.

“After a few months, I was feeling better and doing better,” he says, noting the mental-health coach helped him set goals, monitored his symptoms and asked how he was responding to his anti-depressants.

“There was continuous feedback between (the Partners team), my family doctor and me. And that was very important. I felt like I was taken care of.”

This kind of integrated care was adopted from similar models in the United States and could become a widespread practice in Ontario. Those overseeing the project say results so far are encouraging.

“Our hope is that this model can assist us in meeting the health-care gaps and increasing access for mental-health services for patients in the primary care context,” says Athina Perivolaris, a senior project manager for the MPA.

Adam Whisler is a mental-health coach, a new role for Canada that involves calling patients once a week to provide support for those dealing with depression, anxiety or at-risk drinking.Adam Whisler is a mental-health coach, a new role for Canada that involves calling patients once a week to provide support for those dealing with depression, anxiety or at-risk drinking. (ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE)

“If we are able to do that, our hope then would be that we can take this model and have it widely adopted throughout the province.”

The MPA was established in 2014 with funding from the province, an anonymous donor and four partners (CAMH, the Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto and Trillium Health Partners). It’s tasked with improving access to better-integrated mental and physical health care in Ontario.

About 150 family doctors, mostly from the GTA, are working with the Partners Project, but researchers are trying to recruit more physicians in rural and remote areas.

As part of the study, patients are placed in one of two groups: one that keeps getting usual care and another that receives usual care, plus the extra phone support from a mental-health coach.

In some cases, the study’s researchers identified serious problems with patients, such as PTSD, drug use, mania and psychosis, which had been missed by family doctors.

“Even when physicians detect some distress, they do not necessarily have the time to find out what the problem is,” says Perivolaris.

Dr. Charles King of Village Family Health Team in Toronto welcomes the extra support and has referred about 35 patients to the project.

“The idea is that you want to actively manage depression, anxiety and at-risk drinking. Typically a lot of people fall through the cracks with those problems.”

Whisler has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, is a former youth worker and does mental-health research at CAMH. In order to participate in this project, he and the other coaches received special training that includes symptom-monitoring and how to speak with patients so they better understand their symptoms.

For those with mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety, regular chats with a mental-health coach may be sufficient, says Whisler. Coaches can help them with life skills and goals so their situation doesn’t worsen and require formal therapy.

“From a system-level perspective, that makes a massive difference in reducing wait times for psychiatrists and psychologists and also reducing the cost to the overall health system.”

For Antonio, regular phone sessions with a mental-health coach — a “comforting and reassuring” voice — made all the difference.

“I’d probably be gone had I continued on that destructive path.”

He’s now putting many of the skills he learned during their discussions to good use. For instance, he recently broke up with his partner — something he says would’ve pushed him over the edge a couple of years ago — but he’s managing.

“I’m not exactly 100-per-cent OK . . . but I’m not where I was.”

5 Habits That Turn Off Negative Thinking

From The Power of Positivity

5 Habits That Turn Off Negative Thinking

negative thinking

“We act how we think and feel. When we remove the negative thought, with it goes the drama and pain.” – Anon.

Negative thoughts serve absolutely no purpose. Zero. None. Not-a-one. Know what else?

Negative thinking has absolutely nothing to do with you as a person. Toxic thoughts don’t define your character, and they can’t determine your destiny. Wedetermine the power of each negative thought. Unfortunately, we often grant negative thoughts too much influence – and this is what causes damage.

The Buddha once said: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”

Notice the word unguarded in Buddha’s teaching. As he is with most things pertaining to the mind, Buddha is once again supremely wise. Sometimes negative thoughts have a tendency to hang around – this is when cognitive reframing (i.e. ‘cognitive restructuring’) is essential.

Dr. Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit, describes cognitive restructuring as “a core part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT),” which Dr. Boyes says “is one of the most effective psychological treatments.”

No, you don’t need to participate in CBT to learn cognitive restructuring.

In fact, in this article, we’re going to teach some fundamentals of cognitive restructuring. While you may not become an expert on the technique, you’ll walk away informed and – more importantly – empowered.



Take a seat in the far back of your mind and simply observe the negative thought. (Think about how you’d watch a bird flutter about on a rooftop.)

Negative thoughts are generally a product of cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns, something recognized by psychologists and psychiatrists the world over. You don’t require psychotherapy or medication – you only need to observe a thought, and then watch it dissipate.


Ruminations are patterns of overthinking, e.g., “I have this problem, which I can solve if I just keep thinking about it.” Unless you’re actively engaging the frontal lobe of your brain – that is, attempting to solve a problem – most ruminations are pointless.

The question then becomes “How do I reframe these thoughts?” 

Here is a suggested course of action:

(a) Create two columns on a sheet of paper. Label the first column “Thought” and the second column “Solution.”

(b) When the rumination appears, write down the time. Write anything of use in the “solution” column.

(c) At the end of the day/week/month, count the number of times the thought appeared and any insights.

Is there anything of value? If not, re-read #1.



Another way of reframing your thoughts is to evaluate the evidence behind them.

For example, if you’re always thinking “I never have enough money,” it may be helpful to assess the evidence and come to a solution (if needed).

Once again, you’ll create two columns. In Column (A) write any supporting proof that you “never have enough money,” e.g. bank account balance, always asking for money, etc. In Column (B) write any objective evidence demonstrating the contrary, e.g. having shelter, food, clothing, and so on.

What information is conveyed through this exercise? Can you say with 100 percent honesty that you “never have enough money”? If so, what’s the next course of action? Do you create a budget and limit your spending?


What better place to mention mindfulness than after talking about money – a near-universal stressor?

Christopher Bergland, a three-time champion of the Triple Ironman triathlon and scientist, explains mindfulness as “much more basic than most people realize.” Bergland breaks down his approach to mindfulness in three steps: “Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking. Anyone can use this simple mindfulness technique throughout the day to stay calm, focused, optimistic and kind.”

Structured mindfulness meditation practices and techniques, such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) exist for those people seeking more formal training.


We touched on this during the introduction, but it’s worth repeating: negative thoughts are fleeting and temporary; without any real power of their own.

No matter what negative thoughts cross your mind, it is crucial to understand these concepts. In fact, you can even create and recite a maxim, for example, “This is a negative thought. I’ll observe but not engage, as it will quickly flee.”

One terrific way to demonstrate the powerlessness of a negative thought is to distract yourself. Do something that will occupy your mind, so there’s no room for the negative thoughts.

We wish you peace, happiness, self-love and self-compassion.

Stephen Hawking’s Beautiful Message For Anyone With Depression

Stephen Hawking has one of the greatest minds of our time. He is well known for his work in theoretical physics, and was born on January 8, 1942, (300 years after the death of Galileo) in Oxford, England. As a young child, he wanted to study mathematics, but once he began college, he studied Natural Sciences. Then, during his first year in Cambridge at the age of 21, Hawking began to have symptoms of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Doctors gave him two and a half years to live.

Now, at the age of 74, he continues to teach, research, and provide the world with beautiful messages. He says that his expectations were reduced to zero when he was given the ALS diagnosis. Ever since then, every aspect of his life has been a bonus.

One of the most brilliant minds did not allow these life challenges to stop him. He continued studying. Hawking has twelve honorary degrees. He has dedicated his life to finding answers about the universe, the Big Bang, creation and scientific theories. He cannot speak or move, bounded to a wheelchair, but he has found ways to inspire the world, encouraging us to find the mysticism in the stars. He says:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”

Recently during a lecture in January at the Royal Institute in London, Hawking compared black holes to depression, making it clear that neither the black holes or depression are impossible to escape. “The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up; there’s a way out,” he said.

When asked about his disabilities, he says: “The victim should have the right to end his life, if he wants. But I think it would be a great mistake. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” He continues with an inspiring message about disabilities:

“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap. I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway. On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal.

My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”

Stephen Hawking does not only encourage the scientific minds to pay attention, but inspires the rest of us to take notice that there is connection between the stars and each one of us. His disabilities have not stopped his curious mind and sense of wonder.

His daughter, Lucy, shared with the crowd at the lecture, “He has a very enviable wish to keep going and the ability to summon all his reserves, all his energy, all his mental focus and press them all into that goal of keeping going. But not just to keep going for the purposes of survival, but to transcend this by producing extraordinary work writing books, giving lectures, inspiring other people with neurodegenerative and other disabilities.”

How To Train Your Brain To Go Positive Instead Of Negative

By Loretta Breuning for Forbes

Our brain is not designed to create happiness, as much as we wish it were so. Our brain evolved to promote survival. It saves the happy chemicals (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) for opportunities to meet a survival need, and only releases them in short spurts which are quickly metabolized. This motivates us to keep taking steps that stimulate our happy chemicals.

You can end up with a lot of unhappy chemicals in your quest to stimulate the happy ones, especially near the end of a stressful workday. There are a number of reasons why your brain goes negative. The bad feeling of cortisol has its own survival purpose. It alerts you to an obstacle on the path to meeting your needs so you can navigate your way to good feelings. But once you do that, your brain finds the next obstacle. You will feel bad a lot if you follow your survival brain wherever it leads. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to rewire this natural negativity.

Let’s start with an example I call the Dog Poop Paradox. Pet mess was everywhere when I was young because picking up after your pooch was not the norm. Then customs changed and the streets were gloriously cleaner. Did that make anyone happy? NO. People barely noticed. They do notice an oops, however, and they get plenty mad about it.

Our brain evolved to scan for problems and it is skilled at finding problems when it looks. For example, reporters predicted the downfall of civilized society when the bicycle was invented. They warned that people would flit from here to there instead of having long conversations, and that we’d retire early from exhaustion instead of conversing in the evening. We have inherited the brain that helped our ancestors notice threats in time to act. We are skilled at finding threats, even as we seek rewards.

Build Yourself A Positivity Circuit

Negativity will engulf you unless you build yourself a positivity circuit. To do that, spend one minute looking for positives, three times a day for forty five days. This trains your brain to look for positives the way it is already trained to look for negatives.

You may think there aren’t enough positives in the awful world around you. But you don’t have to perform in Carnegie Hall and rescue orphans from burning buildings to create positivity. Any positives, no matter how small, will build the pathway that seeks and expects positives. Just appreciate the absence of dog poop on the path in front of you and neural connections will develop. It may seem false to seek out positives when negatives are so apparent. But as explained in my prior post (7 Reasons Why Your Brain Goes Negative), your present lens is false and in need of correction.

It’s hard to go positive when everyone around you is going negative. Your mammal brain wants to run when the rest of the herd runs. In the state of nature, you’d end up in the jaws of a predator if you ignored your group-mates’ threat signals and waited to see the threat for yourself. Mammals bond around shared threats, and fighting the common enemy raises a mammal’s status within its group. If you ignore the perceived threats that animate your group mates, you will probably pay the price in social rewards. Positivity has a cost, but the benefit is greater.

PARE Your Negativity

When you build your positivity circuit, you will PARE your negativity with Personal Agency and Realistic Expectations.

Personal Agency is the pleasure of choosing your next step. You can never predict the results of your efforts but you always get to choose the next step toward meeting your needs.

When Your Cortisol Surges

Realistic Expectations are the alternatives you generate when your cortisol surges. Though it’s natural to have a survival-threat feeling when your efforts fail to bring immediate visible rewards, you can remind yourself that your survival is not actually threatened. Most human achievement came from efforts that did not bring immediate visible rewards. When your results are disappointing, you can adjust your expectations and take another step.

PARE and you will REAP, because Realistic Expectations lead to Acting Personally. You will stimulate your own happy chemicals instead of just hoping the world stimulates them for you.

Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay. She’s the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy BrainThe Inner Mammal Institute offers a wide range of resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. On Twitter, see @InnerMammal or facebook.com/LorettaBreuningPhD/.

What/why is there an emphasis on a higher power in AA? It is assumed that “higher” is understood to be of great value. What do you think?

Quora discussion – our answer:

There are many good answers here already, but we will chime in only to say that for many, the concept of “higher power” as they understand it in the context of AA can be one heck of a road block, and in many cases, it can be an “Exit Only” from AA.

To be clear – we support virtually *anything* that people can use to get past addiction, and depression. If a higher power does it for you? Great. If it does not? You can still recover.

We believe that the roots to most addictions run much deeper than the addiction itself. Psychotherapy can be the saving grace for so many of us.

Just know that if AA is not working for you, you still have options. And if it is working for you? Congrats! Whatever works… 🙂