And it doesn’t end there.
Then, we suffer because we suffer when getting upset about being treated unfairly, mad about having an illness, or sad about going to bed sad yet another day. The crazy thing is that this kind of unhappiness is totally a product of our brains which is at the same time good and bad. If your brain is causing the suffering, it can also stop it.
Over millions of years of evolution, our brains developed neural networks producing pain and anxiety under certain conditions, which while effective for ensuring survival and passing on the genes, do not leave us feeling good.
For your protection, your brain is naturally vigilant, constantly scanning its environment for threats with a built-in negativity bias – better to err on the side of caution than to be eaten. Negative experiences hold more weight with your brain and even get stored differently. In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes: “Your brain is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
A car cuts in front of you, a rude comment by a co-worker, or a worrisome thought about the credit card balance can be interpreted as a threat by your brain which sounds the alarm causing your body to react. Being on alert all the time produces feelings ranging from mild malaise and dissatisfaction to moderate stress and depression to intense trauma and mental illness.
When suffering becomes chronic, there are lasting negative consequences for the brain and body. The cumulative damage of over stimulating the flight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), can lead to gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine problems with the greatest impact usually being seen on psychological well being as increased anxiety and depressed mood.
So, what’s the answer?
We have to learn to consciously turn down the alarm, the SNS, and return to a baseline state of calm and peace. (For a more in-depth explanation, read here.) Deliberately taking steps to feel safer and calm the SNS helps control your brain’s hardwired tendency to look for and overreact to threats.
Hanson suggests ways to do this:
- Relaxation exercises can be used on-the-spot as needed. A simple technique is a relaxing body scan where you sit comfortably and slow your breathing. Starting at your head and working your way down your body, you consciously notice, breathe into, and relax any tension. If you’re in public or short on time, you can do an abbreviated scan.
- Diaphragm Breathing, taking long, deep breaths into your tummy, slows your heart rate and activates the calm, parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Placing your hand on your diaphragm, the center of your stomach a couple of inches below your lungs, take long, full breaths making your hand move in and out with each inhale and exhale. After you get the hang of it, you can do it anywhere without using your hand.
- Touching the lips initiates a soothing response because PNS fibers are spread throughout the lips. The action may also be associated with feelings of safety through eating or breastfeeding.
- Imagery, also called visualization, causes physical reactions in your body. Your brain sends pretty much the same messages to the nervous system whether something is being imagined or actually experienced. Visualize peaceful images in the moment or when you have more time, visualize longer scenarios incorporating smells and sounds.
- Balance your heartbeat Heart rate variability (HRV), the small changes in the intervals between each heartbeat, reflects the activity of your nervous system, and you can learn to directly change yours. Studies have shown that learning to increase the amount and coherence of HRV has physical and mental benefits. The HeartMath Institute has pioneered the study of HRV and offers several techniques to control HRV.
- Meditation requires that a person withdraw attention from stressful matters, relax, and turn attention inward which activates the PNS. Many studies have proven that a regular meditation practice actually physically changes the brain in several positive ways, improves a variety of medical issues, and helps numerous psychological conditions.