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How to Make Friends with Your Brain

“I have a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Mark Twain

Thanks once again for spending time with this article. It brings you both new insights as well as new strategies for making friends with your brain.

This week, we’re taking an unconventional approach to looking at our relationship with the brain. You might be intrigued by my use of the word “relationship” in reference to the gray matter in your head. However, as we look deeper, we explore behind what meets the eye—focusing on the brain itself. Are you interested in discovering something that will empower you to be more successful with ease?

Before we go any further, let’s imagine a different perspective: What if you’re not your brain? What if you have a brain in the same way that you have eyes, a nose, a mouth, and ears? In other words, imagine that you are a distinct entity—the ‘self’ that some refer to—who can change your brain, make it grow new connections, and expand its cognitive networks. In other words, imagine that you hold the power to “sculpt” the architecture of your brain. 

This viewing point is valid when you consider having a relationship with your brain. That’s because the word relationship itself implies that two or more concepts, objects, or people are involved.

Let’s look at the shared origins of our relationship with our brain. It’s truly fascinating to consider that our brain, the very center of our humanity, has remained remarkably unchanged over the last 100,000 years. You and I and the rest of humanity share this incredible connection, using a brain that our ancestors used in order to make sense of the world. The only change, research shows, happened approximately 9,000 years ago when we developed blue eyes. 

Now, what is the function of our brain, and why am I saying it’s important to be friends with your brain? Consider this idea first: your brain is your friend. Why should we even think that this is true? Research has led to the development of Social Safety Theory, developed by  Dr. George Slavich. This theory hypothesizes that developing and maintaining friendly social bonds is a fundamental organizing principle of human behavior and that threats to social safety are a critical feature of psychological stressors that increase the risk for disease (UCLA Stress Lab)​. In short, our brain is always on the lookout for ways to connect along with possible social threats. It wants to keep us safe, either by affiliating with others or by avoiding possible negative consequences. If that’s not being a friend, I don’t know what is! 

There’s one crucial way in which the brain attempts to keep us alive, well, and reproducing.  It’s called the Negativity Bias. For more background, see this article on the Negativity Bias that Rick Hanson, PhD, wrote. 

The Negativity Bias, also known as the negativity effect, is a cognitive bias in which things of a negative nature have a more significant effect on one’s psychological state and processes than positive things. In fact, there are more neurons in the brain devoted to checking for adverse events than positive ones. The brain’s amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Says Rick Hanson: “Our brain is primed to go negative.”

You know your Negativity Bias is at work when you feel anxious and afraid, and you start looking around for what’s going wrong before checking out what’s going right in your immediate environment. Many, if not most of us, walk around every day with a trickle of anxiety because the brain is wired to make us feel afraid. In summary, our brain’s job is to keep us alive by keeping us on alert.

Later on, I’ll give you some basic steps to take to calm your brain, actually having some compassion for this organ that works so hard to keep you safe. In other words, I’ll show you how to make friends with your brain. However, for the moment, can you consider that your poor brain, fashioned 100,000 years ago, is being your friend by keeping you alive? Even if the way it’s doing this is by keeping you vaguely, and sometimes acutely aware, of danger?

Sometimes, our brains play tricks on us. Here’s a funny mishap from a seminar I held in the Napa region of California. I had a 20-minute break and decided to walk a nearby hiking trail. About ten minutes in, I turned back. It was getting dark when I spotted something coiled in the middle of the trail. “Snake!” I thought, panicking since I’d left my iPhone behind and was off the grid. No one would know how to find me!

I considered throwing a rock to scare it off but remembered that’s the last thing you should do to a snake. As I got closer, tears welled up. There was poison oak on both sides, so there was no way to sneak around it. But the closer I got, the less it looked like a snake. Turns out, it was just a cow pie—a mound of cow dung that, from a distance, can resemble coiled-up shapes.

I laughed at myself for mistaking it for a snake. It’s incredible how our Negativity Bias works to predispose us to see danger, isn’t it? As time has gone by, I also see how walking up the trail, I must have seen that cow pie, but didn’t regard it as something inspiring fear. I believe it was because the object appeared very close to me as I rounded a bend coming up the trail. In other words, it was a neutral object that I could readily identify.

How to Make Friends with Your Brain

What do you do when you come upon a situation, and you start feeling anxious or fearful and yet you notice that there’s not necessarily a snake? I love Mark Twain’s quote above because it speaks to that experience of thinking that there’s a snake when it’s only cow poop.

Rick Hanson describes two major mistakes we can make in life. For example,  one mistake is thinking that there is a snake when there isn’t one. The second mistake is thinking that there is no snake when there is one. Mother Nature, he says, would love us to make the first kind of mistake a million times because making the second kind of mistake could kill us.

So, let’s look at an example of a stress-inducing situation and what you can do for your brain to calm it down. Let’s say your friend invites you to a party to introduce you to some of their close friends, saying that they’ll arrive before you so you don’t have to worry about meeting anyone without their being introduced to you. You enter the party to discover your friend isn’t there! Let’s face it: you get stressed. You feel like leaving and waiting outside for your friend because joining the party without them isn’t an option for you and your brain. Or, you decide to join in,  muscling through your fear and letting folks know whose friend you are. Or, you’re like a deer caught in the headlights.

Those are the fight, flight and freeze responses to a potential threat.

What can you do to calm your friend (your brain) down?

  1. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll recognize that your fear and anxiety are normal and natural responses because your brain thinks there’s a threat to your survival out there. It’s trying to protect you from harm. 
  2. Next, give some compassion toward this hard-working companion! Yes, your brain deserves compassion because it is always on alert or getting ready to be on alert. It’s an uncommon yet powerful step.
  3. I’ve coached hundreds of people to do the following: close your eyes for just two or three seconds, touch the side of your head briefly and softly, and say the following to your brain: “It’s ok! You can rest now.” It works! Your brain will hear you and get quieter. Just try it.
  4. Focus your brain elsewhere. For example, take three long, deep breaths. This practice helps lower your heart rate. When your heart is more calm your fear is diminished.
  5. Find something for which you are grateful. You can download a free copy of my Gratitude Journal. It will give you a short, daily practice for cultivating gratitude, which may help your brain be grateful in the present moment. 

These five steps work. I’ve coached hundreds of people to do them when their brain feels their life is threatened. It helps if you continue to think about the fact that you are not your brain. You are that which can shape your brain! And most importantly, it works if you are willing to consider that your brain is your friend! Isn’t it time to become friends with your friend?

Until next time, be well!

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