It’s easy to accumulate a great deal of clutter and mess in our homes over the winter. Spring brings a great time to exchange the darkness and dirt with light and order.
The same is true of our minds.
I have a friend who detests Fairbanks winters. He thinks it is too cold most of the winter to get out and do anything. He spends much of his time from October to April grumbling about the cold and snow and how there is nothing to do. By March he’s built up a huge amount of negative clutter in his mind that is taking a toll on him physically (fatigue, frequent sickness, stiff and sore) and mentally (crabby, irritable, depressed). Even on warm sunny days when the temperatures reach close to melting, he is still so negatively focused that he won’t go outside with his family.
Someone recently told me about the new SUV his wife had purchased this winter. She was enjoying the car until a recent bout of 50 below weather froze it solid when the head-bolt plug-in at work malfunctioned. She got it towed home to their garage to thaw out. It’s still the same new car, but her attitude has changed. All she sees now is what’s wrong with it.
Whether the negativity you have accumulated comes from darkness, cold and snow, or from family, job, or other parts of life, the clutter takes a toll on your body and mind.
When you live a negative-focused life you grow the negative wiring in your brain. A negative focus stimulates the release of cortisol into your blood stream. According to neuropsychologist Rick Hansen, this increase in cortisol does two significant things:
- Cortisol makes the amygdula portion of the brain more sensitive over time. This means it takes less irritation to set you off.
- Cortisol makes the hippocampus shrink. This results in less ability to calm the amygdula and slow down your reactions.
This becomes a vicious cycle. Your warning system for potential danger develops a hair trigger and the brakes to slow down the warning system get less effective. When you get in this cycle, it becomes harder to notice the positive things that happen and your mind becomes cluttered with negativity. Here are three of the ways I teach clients to reverse this process that you can use at home.
Tune Your Mind to the Positive
Step 1 – Notice when good things happen. This is the toughest step. It might be a good tasting steak, a funny joke, or waking up feeling rested. It might be something bigger like getting a promotion, your child winning the science fair, or booking tickets for vacation. At first you might not be able to notice good facts in the moment. If so, start by taking a few minutes before bed to review the day and identify two or three good experiences. This can begin to tune your awareness of good events. Gradually you will begin to notice positives more quickly.
Step 2 – Appreciate or enjoy the experience for 10 to 30 seconds. Take time to experience what you are thinking and feeling at that moment (or if you’re starting out with a daily review, what you were thinking and feeling when the experience happened). Kind of like when you take a bite of an amazing dessert or a sip of good wine -you slowly savor the tastes instead of immediately gulping it down.
Step 3 – Soak it in. Imagine you are a sponge, as you soak in all the flavor, joy, laughter, sense of accomplishment, pride, etc from that moment. Image you are adding another gold nugget to a treasure chest in your mind.
Develop Gratitude and Expectation
Take time each morning or evening to write down 5 things that you are grateful for (past or present) and 5 things you are excited for (in the future). You can use a notebook, sticky note, smart phone, or whatever.
One friend keeps a notebook at her station in a bank. As she goes about her work and thinks of something, she jots it down. By lunchtime she usually has a complete list and on break she e-mails the list out to friends. In the two years that I have know her, she has only missed a few days.
My wife and I do a simple version of this with our kids as part of our dinnertime routine where we each share one grateful and one excited. One research project demonstrated that people who do this daily for three months have significant growth in the positive centers of their brain.
Remember and Relive
Take a few minutes to relive a good memory. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, tastes, and emotions from the memory. My wife and I have been using this for years when we are feeling disconnected or angry. I might start by describing our first walk on Beach 4. As we relive that day- the sun setting over the ocean, the rush of the ocean waves, the smell of seaweed and salt, the feel of the tiny pebbles under our feet, the salty taste in the air- the positive feelings of peace, connection, and tranquility return.