Positive Stress Management and Gratitude Part 2: Making Habits, and Reality vs. Imagination
Chris G'Froerer, Stress Therapist
Whatever we practice regularly becomes habitual. Just like pumping weights over time will give you larger muscles, so our brain forms neural pathways which are reinforced and strengthened each time we think the same thoughts. When we tell ourselves that we are not as good as others, or that we will not cope in certain circumstances, the brain immediately sees the negative scenario as pictures on the right side of the brain, then makes meaning of it on the left side (social isolation or failure) which is then experienced as an emotion such as shame or anxiety.
Habits are simply fortified pathways. They are automatic. You don’t have to think about it. The more we practice the more natural the behaviour becomes. We first make our habits then our habits make us. Worriers automatically worry due to these reinforced neural pathways. We have healthy and unhealthy neural pathways. We can have negative pathways which lead us to finding fault in things – what is not working. We can also develop positive pathways which can lead us to finding the benefits – what is working. The internal matters so much more to our well-being than the external.
Reality vs. Imagination
What we tell ourselves provides a blue print, if you like for our brain and body to follow – just like an architect’s plans are followed by the builder. Because the brain does not know the difference between reality and imagination, and because the brain operates in present moment reality, it actually records what we tell ourselves as real events that are effectively happening right now. Because the brain processes thoughts in the same way as real events, any negative thought is perceived as a threat which therefore triggers the body to release adrenalin and other stress hormones, in order to prepare us to flee or fight. Have you ever noticed that when you think about a negative event in the past, you also experience the original emotions you had during that event?
Any experience, whether it is real or imagined, that is paired with adrenalin secretion is stored in our memory in such a way so that it is more easily and quickly accessed. Our brain wants to revisit that thought more often to see if the danger is still there. This is a primitive response from the days when caveman saw a tiger footprint and experienced the flight or fight response. His brain had to remind him that there was a predator out there and that he had to be alert in case the tiger attacked him. Constant rumination was therefore sensible and also enabled him to strategise a way to ambush or capture the animal.
Unfortunately, man’s brain did not evolve to worry about “What if I say something silly at the dinner party tonight?” or “What if I (the student) don’t get enough marks to get into engineering at university?” Most of us spend up to 90% of our day ruminating about our past mistakes or regrets or negatively anticipating some future event. What this does, is reinforces neural pathways, making the experience stronger and more convincing and thus becomes part of our core belief system, affecting our subsequent behaviour. In other words, our thoughts are not merely reactions to events: they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless in changing our dysfunctional relationship, or finding a way out of our financial hardships, we can actually become paralysed and sabotage any desire to change our lives. The very thought “nothing I do matters” prevents us from acting.