Train Your Brain to Find the Good Things, by Vanessa King

Annamarie Dillon | March 27, 2015

It gives us great pleasure to share the second blog post in the series for rare disease caregivers entitled, "Building Resilience" by Vanessa King.

Think back over your day yesterday - what comes most quickly and easily to mind?

What went well and things you were pleased about or what went wrong or you weren’t happy about? Often it’s the latter and this is even more likely when we are tired or overloaded, which as busy carers and patient group leaders we often are. Think back again…were there some good things, however small, that you enjoyed or were grateful for? Recently psychologists have shown that when we experience pleasant emotions (such as joy, amusement, calmness, pride, interest or love) it has the opposite effect and can actually help to build our resilience and psychological resources.

Focusing on what’s wrong is natural

As human beings we have a natural tendency to focus on what’s wrong. We’re hard wired for it. Psychologists call this our ‘negativity bias’ and there’s a good reason why we developed this.

Millennia ago, when as a species we needed to hunt for our own food in the wild, we had to be constantly on the look out for danger, our lives literally depended on it. So our brains became hard-wired to scan our environment for risks.

When we spotted a potential danger – we felt a spike of fear or anxiety. These emotions then created a series of physiological reactions - our focus narrowing to keep the source of danger in our sight and our muscles tensing to prepare for rapid action, either fighting, freezing or getting out of the way. Because our survival depended on unpleasant emotions like fear, we developed a tendency to feel these more strongly than more pleasant emotions.

Of course, being tuned into danger is still important, for example, it helps us get out of the way of cars that don’t slow down when we cross the road or avoid accidents. However, even though we no longer face the same life threatening dangers on a daily basis (thankfully), our brains are still more likely to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and over time this can take a toll on our wellbeing.

Re-training our attention

Because our brain tends notice what's wrong before what’s right we have to train it to notice both. When we are in a pleasant emotional state we literally see more, we are more open to ideas, better at problem solving, more creative and more open and trusting of other people. Over time this helps us build relationships, learn and develop our skills all of which boost our wellbeing.

Sounds complicated? It’s not. All it takes is simply reflecting back over your day and writing down three good things that happened and perhaps a word or two on these were good. Even on the worst day there are usually some good things, however small. For example: the sun shining, a chat with a neighbour, someone bringing you a cup of tea, getting a few minutes to yourself.

A scientific experiment showed that doing this activity each night for a week increased people’s happiness and reduced depressive symptoms, which lasted up to six months. It even helped some people sleep better! It’s all about squeezing more benefit from the good things that do happen, large and small, that sometimes we let slip by.

Why not try it yourself tonight? View the attached pdf for some examples and a week-long journal. Tell us what you notice!

For more information about the blog series and Vanessa's work with caregivers, please see introduction to the blog series here.

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