I was driving to an appointment, and traffic was getting worse. I saw that I was going to be at least ten minutes late. A surge of alarm and guilt rose up in me. Now I can’t relax and enjoy my audiobook, I thought angrily. Instead, I’d be on high alert, speeding and passing when I could get away with it, my heart beating fast with impatience at every slowdown, and being berated by my inner critic for not leaving earlier.
But waaaait a minute. Was that really necessary?
I’ve been learning a lot lately about positive psychology and mindfulness, and it’s all coming together for me with exciting news about ways to shift out of unhelpful negative states (like my frustration in the car) and actually strengthen our “positivity muscles” (in literal ways that show up in the brain!). I’ve been practicing daily with the Positive Intelligence (PQ) program for five weeks now (I was invited to participate free with other coaches; thank you Diane for the recommendation!) and I’m feeling noticeable benefits already, plus this program fits in very well with other concepts I’ve learned during the pandemic years (when I really needed it, after all, most research is “me-search”). Although I’m still just getting started, I am eager to share what I’m learning with you. I hope it’s helpful!
We all have internal warning systems, deep in the primitive or survival areas of our brains, which constantly scan our sensory experiences for threats (including social threats). The signals put out by these warning systems include physical pain, anger, fear, irritation and frustration and many more. Of course these systems were critical to our ancestors’ survival, those who felt no fear or pain didn’t last long, and we need them too, to protect ourselves from threats and learn from mistakes.
I’d clearly made a mistake in not leaving earlier, but now there I was. Could I acknowledge that alarm signal and let it go? Enjoy my audiobook and drive safely and wisely? (And could I have learned this before age 60?) The answer seems obvious when we put it this way. But it was a challenge for me, and I only partially succeeded. Why?
The internal warning system not only produces uncomfortable emotions, but also physiological effects: the fight, flight or freeze response. Our muscles tense, our digestion shuts down, and we have a kind of tunnel vision, narrowly focusing us on the threat at hand (rather than an interesting audiobook).
This system works great when a rattlesnake suddenly appears out of the bushes. But in modern life, we can feel constantly bombarded with stressful input, from emails to tragedies on the news to the harsh voice of our own inner critic. The pandemic, with its dangers and isolation, also turned up the volume on the stress response for people around the world. It’s not surprising that the internal warning system can come to dominate our experience, so anxiety and discomfort become a habitual state.
The Authentic Self: more positive and more capable
Fortunately, we all have another mode, which not only feels better but actually helps us deal with our problems and reach our goals more effectively. In the Positive Intelligence (PQ) program, it is called the Sage. In Buddhism it might be identified with the “Buddha nature“ or capacity for inner peace, wisdom and compassion which is present in everyone. In Internal Family Systems therapy, it is called the Authentic Self. I love the “Voices of the Authentic Self,” as identified by Dr. Richard Schwartz:
There are also 5 Ps: presence, patience, perspective, persistence, and playfulness. (Yes! I want more of those!) It appears that mental states like these emerge from functions of the higher brain centers which are actually different parts of the brain from the threat/warning centers — as is being discovered in the emerging field of positive neuroscience.
Unfortunately, it seems that the activation of the survival brain with its clanging alarms crowds out the gentle and positive mental states of the authentic self or Sage. It also has two other unwelcome effects:
– When warning signals like fear and anger remain, they make it much harder to take wise, positive action and move toward our goals (or drive safely).
– Chronic activation of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism has numerous negative health effects.
But the good news, according to these concepts (increasingly supported by research) is that if we can quiet the survival brain and quickly return to a relaxed state after a threat (like realizing we are late or simply having a worried thought), the Authentic Self will naturally emerge.
Furthermore, we can actually exercise and strengthen the Authentic Self part of the brain and make it stronger, in a way that shows up on brain scans! This doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly become great artists, but we’ll be able to bring more creativity, compassion, patience and the other Authentic Self qualities to our daily lives. A recommended level is 75% positive emotions to 25% negative ones, compared to the typical 50-50 or less. The Positive Intelligence program has a quick online test where you can check your positive intelligence quotient or PQ. Mine has gone from 47 to 61 after just five weeks of intentional practice, with the circumstances of my life staying basically the same.
Strengthening the muscles of our body helps us feel better, move more comfortably and fluidly, and carry out tasks with greater ease (I recently took my winter clothes to the basement and was amazed at how many hangers full of clothes I could carry on one arm!). Strengthening our positivity muscles and bringing out more of the Authentic Self helps us feel more positive emotions. Our relationships can improve. Problems seem easier to solve. We can move more easily toward our goals. We can uplift and encourage others around us. Let’s do this!
Stuck in the wrong 8 Cs
After learning about the 8 Cs last fall, I had cataract surgery on one eye at a time and was unable to read or work on the computer effectively for several weeks. My survival brain was in full alarm mode, and when I looked at the list of the 8 Cs, I realized I wasn’t feeling any of them. Instead, I wrote down 8 Cs that I was actually feeling: Chaos, Confusion, Cowardice, Clunkiness, Crying, Can’t-do-it-all, Criticism, and Collapse.
Looking back, I can see that I could have relaxed during that time, trusting that my eyesight would improve (Dr. Leigh knew what she was doing) and I’d get new glasses when my vision settled down. I could have used the time to reach out to friends and family on the phone, catch up on podcasts, voice-record ideas, walk in nature (I could see well enough to do that!), and much more. But no. Instead I flopped around in the wrong 8 Cs, upset about the work that was not getting done (which didn’t help me actually do it; I was just suffering about it).
A few weeks without clear eyesight is not much of a hardship… I’m sure you have dealt with, and are dealing with, much worse. And we all carry legacies from our childhoods and past experiences that can lurk unresolved in our survival brains, leaving us with burdens ranging from phobias to unresolved conflicts to negative beliefs about ourselves. I think pretty much any human can benefit from good therapy. I sought it out myself during the pandemic, and it was extremely helpful. I’ll write about my therapy experiences in another blog post!
After the cataract-surgery setback and after ending my course of therapy, I became even more determined to learn more about how to continue working on myself, to consolidate my gains and improve further.
I have also realized that as I coach my clients (and myself) in order to change habits and achieve health goals, we need to go beyond healthy food and exercise plans. We need to reduce the volume of the inner critic, let go of beliefs that keep us stuck, and strengthen our positivity muscles as well as our physical ones.
So how can we do this (aside from therapy)? Fortunately, I’m finding that there are many effective ways, so you can choose the methods that appeal to you and fit best into your life; similar to finding the kind of physical exercise that you truly enjoy, so you will gladly stick with it long enough to feel the benefits (which further boosts motivation).
Here are six practices that are effective and easy to add to your day. I’ve been using several of them in an intentional way for five weeks now in the PQ program, and my average heart rate variability has increased (possibly indicating less activation of the fight-or-flight system) as well as my PQ score. I’m just getting started, but I didn’t want to wait any longer to share them with you. Hope you find them helpful!
Physical movement! Of course!
Aside from its many other health benefits, enjoyable physical movement has a direct positive impact on the brain, counteracting the alarm system, raising mood, and even promoting neuron growth in our higher brain centers. And even 15 minutes of walking makes a difference! Start with a “dose” that easily fits into your life, and increase it as you feel the benefits. Reach out to me if you’d like help getting started or making a plan!
Internal nonviolence and letting go.
This was a revelation to me when I learned about it recently in the PQ program. We already know it’s counterproductive to continue internally raging against things we can’t change, like my lateness in my example. Recognizing my mistake and the emotions it provoked, and then gently letting them go, would allow me to drive more safely and even enjoy my audiobook. This strategy is also the best option when dealing with our own internal resistance, uncomfortable emotions or our harsh inner critic. We tend to react negatively to ourselves, thinking “Shut up, nasty inner voice! What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be feeling angry or hopeless, here I go again eating the whole bag of chocolate-covered almonds (that is me!). But this is important: in judging and criticizing ourselves, we are actually strengthening our negative mental circuits and further activating the alarm system. It’s a bit like yelling back at a screaming toddler… I’ve done it, and it doesn’t help. Notice that the point is not to be totally fine with the nasty inner voice, the persistence of anger or the overconsumption of chocolate. It is to move out of the tunnel vision of the alarm system and bring the Authentic Self back into the room, to address the problem more wisely.
I’m gradually learning to practice this internal nonviolence, turning more gently toward my ugly thoughts or unwanted behavior, with thoughts like “Silly human, I see what’s going on here, it’s your survival brain grabbing all the food or beating you up so you’ll learn from a mistake. It’s OK, we can manage this. (Calmness, curiosity, compassion and confidence, as well as more connectedness with myself!) In the PQ program, the recommendation is to recognize and label the voice of the Judge — “My Judge is saying that I’m hopeless for eating the whole bag” — and let it go. (Founder Shirzad Chamine dramatizes and explains the Judge in this short video .) Getting angry and annoyed at our own Judge strengthens the self-critical pathways and thus strengthens the Judge! But being wise to its game and dismissing it with Authentic Self powers can gradually turn it from a raging all-powerful genie to a squeaky little cartoon entity inside a bottle.
The mind-body practice of Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT) also makes use of this insight. It’s a simple practice of guided meditation while tapping gently on various parts of the body. The first round is always accepting our uncomfortable emotions (and ourselves as we are), and then moving toward letting go and opening up to new feelings.
Mindfulness practices which perhaps should instead be called “bodyfulness practices”??
It’s no secret that long-term meditators can experience more calmness, clarity, compassion and other positive mental states. In fact, measurable changes in the brain can be seen after just 8 weeks of meditating! Even better news: mindfulness can be practiced throughout the day in bursts as short as 10 seconds, during activities you’re already doing, and still produce these positive changes. Ten seconds is about three breaths, and this is enough to shift us slightly into Authentic Self or “Sage” mode. Is this related to the time-honored advice to take a deep breath before responding to a situation? Absolutely yes!
The basic mindfulness practice is to focus our attention on sensations in the body in the present moment, and as thoughts arise, just let them go and guide the attention back to the sensations. The classic focus is the breath, but we can also use touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, or internal senses such as awareness of our body in the chair or our feet on the floor.
This kind of mindfulness practice has multiple benefits:
- It helps calm the survival alarm (you’re safe in this moment!), allowing the Authentic Self to emerge.
- It helps us view our thoughts and the emotions they generate more objectively, so we can question them (is it really impossible to enjoy my audiobook?) and view them more like passing clouds, rather than getting caught up in them. This is especially helpful if we have a raging inner Judge or tend toward exaggerated negative thoughts like I can’t do anything right.
- It trains the mind and actually exercises and strengthens the higher brain regions, because gently focusing and re-focusing our attention (with calmness and curiosity) uses that part of the brain.
Ten seconds can be compared to just one rep (like one biceps curl), but they add up. The recommendation is for about 30 minutes per day of mindfulness practice, which sounds like a lot but if we intentionally focus on our senses while brushing our teeth, taking a shower, eating, drinking coffee, and exercising, we’ll easily get enough reps, plus our food and coffee will taste better (as long as it’s good coffee ?). (See Chapter 7 of the Positive Intelligence audiobook for lots of great tips, and try out some guided PQ reps here.) Of course, adding traditional meditation to your day also works great. I highly recommend the free, self-guided online Palouse Mindfulness course (8 weeks long, enough to create noticeable change!).
Cognitive reframing. How we talk to ourselves matters — our subconscious is listening!
Our thoughts may seem like little wisps, flitting around in our minds without any power. But our own thoughts can activate either our internal alarm system, or our Sage mode. Our thoughts produce emotions in us, which motivate our actions, which in turn produce results. (This is the Model which The Life Coach School uses to successfully address any dilemma; check out their great podcast here.) If I’m presenting a talk and thinking “I’m going to flop, my hair looks stupid, and they’re all going to laugh at me”, I’ll feel and act very differently from if I’m thinking “They want me to succeed; I’ve got something to say and I can do this.” Even if I don’t believe “My hair looks great”, I can think something like “They’re not here for the hair; they want to know what I have to say.”. Or I don’t think less of a speaker because of their hair, and if someone is judging me because my hair isn’t elegant, that’s their problem.
Cognitive reframing doesn’t mean switching to an opposite statement that we don’t believe. It often just means opening up to other possibilities, when we’ve been telling ourselves a very rigid and discouraging story. For instance, instead of thinking I’ll never be able to lose weight, we could change it to I’ve struggled with my weight in the past, but I’m open to trying a different approach. According to neuroscientist and weight loss therapist Eliza Kingsford, you can’t outperform your belief system — if your subconscious registers the belief that you will “never be able to lose weight,” it will actually sabotage you in order to keep your actions congruent with your beliefs! Talk about the wrong kind of integrity! And sadly, I heard about someone who regularly calls herself a “fat pig”. How must she feel, with her inner voice speaking to her that way? Likely discouraged and ashamed.. and these are not emotions that tend to fuel joyful, positive action. Instead, she could label the voice — “My Judge is calling me a fat pig” — and gently turn toward a new thought, like I care about myself, and I want to be more active and healthier. This matters not only because it feels better, but because it affects our actions and results in concrete ways.
Actively seeking out positivity, for instance through gratitude practices.
The negativity bias built into our brains keeps us more alert to threats and problems than to opportunities and small joys, which we may dismiss and take for granted. To counterbalance this natural tendency, we can intentionally seek out and notice what is positive, thus training our brains to pay attention to it (and generating more of the associated positive feelings). A gratitude journal is a common and effective practice.. simply write down several things you are grateful for each day (ideally different things each day), which trains the brain to seek them out and acknowledge them. Another idea is to create a rule that for every criticism or complaint to your partner, work colleagues or a family member, you need to say three positive things. This can transform your relationships as well as your brain! And in this moving 12-minute TED talk, Hailey Bartholomew explains how she overcame depression and learned to appreciate her life and her family after a nun advised her to seek out little things that sparked gratitude in her throughout the day (advice which she found “underwhelming” until she tried it). She decided to photograph one of them each day for a year, and she ended up changing other lives as well as her own.
Doing things (even very small things) that activate the 8 Cs.
It’s exciting to realize that the positive states of the Sage or authentic self are associated with particular brain regions, which we can strengthen by spending time in those states (just like we strengthen finger-control brain regions by practicing the piano). We may not be ready for a big leap in any of these directions, but even something that seems small but causes us to feel more like the Authentic Self is a step in the right direction (as I’ve found in the pandemic, when even a friendly word from a takeout restaurant worker wearing a mask boosted my much-needed sense of connection). What small action can you take that will activate your sense of calmness, clarity, confidence, courage, curiosity, creativity, compassion or connectedness? Maybe choose one each day to boost?
You’ve surely heard much of this advice before, but I hope there was a new thing or two! And you’ve heard it because it does work. The trick is to find the method that appeals to you and truly practice it. I admit that I have fallen short in this many times. A gratitude journal helped me.. until I gave it up. With my weekly online Mindfulness group, I went through the whole 8-week Palouse Mindfulness course (in about 12 weeks), but I was mainly learning the fascinating concepts rather than putting them into practice. I did start to sit quietly and “meditate” during my morning coffee, but I would just let my mind wander and come up with ideas, so it was useful thinking time, but it didn’t specifically strengthen my positivity muscles. I’ve often done Tapping when I’m feeling stressed, but I didn’t make it a daily habit.
Now, thanks to the PQ program, I’m practicing “real” mindfulness (turning my attention to physical sensations and gently bringing my mind back whenever it wanders) and starting to feel changes in myself. It’s exciting in the same way that it felt when I became able to run a mile, lift 50 pounds overhead, or lose a pound of fat in a week and still feel satisfied by natural foods. I want to do more!
What are some of the practices you already do, or would like to do? Let me know in the comments!
And remember that coaching can make a big difference as you work on establishing a new habit or reaching a goal, whether in the areas of mindfulness, physical movement or healthy eating (or all three!) Schedule a Zoom coaching session with me here at your convenience, and let’s see what we can do together! My coaching packages are always affordable and tailored to your needs and schedule.
Finally, if you don’t already receive my twice-monthly Jetpack emails, where I share offerings like free workshops and online groups, please sign up here, I really appreciate it (and of course you can unsubscribe anytime ?).
Greetings from my Authentic Self to yours, and wishing you more calmness, clarity, confidence, courage, curiosity, creativity, compassion, connectedness, presence, patience, perspective, persistence, and playfulness! You deserve it!