Imagine being able to train your brain to reverse the effects of negative thinking. Impossible, you say? Not according to Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who said we can develop what he calls a Buddha brain with a few simple steps.
"The repetition in the mind of negativity, and fear that comes with it, are actually these ancient … circuits that are great for keeping people alive if you're a caveman but bad for long-term health," said Hanson, author of the book "Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time" (New Harbinger Publications). "People are often relieved to hear they can really train their own brain to think differently."
"People need to accept things that they can't control," he said. "Acceptance is not approval. Let me be clear about that. It's acknowledging that we can't do anything about the economy, or certain things in the world. We know we might get laid off—we know our kids can smoke dope—that alarms us and it feeds into the ancient circuitry. So you really have to ask yourself, 'Can I accept that this is the way it is whether I like it or not?' "
Hanson acknowledged this can be difficult, because finding acceptance and being able to self-soothe are not our natural responses to negativity.
"We're good to our kids and we want to save the whales but when it comes to being on our own side, forget it," he said. "And why do we feel we can only be good to ourselves when we're on vacation? Do it now—at your desk—in your car—in the shower. Make a commitment to focus on self compassion. It may seem basic but it's really hard for people."
Here are Hanson's five steps to help combat the emotional upset caused by negativity.
Realize you are upset. "Take a step back and really observe it," said Hanson. "That's 50 percent of the battle. It doesn't change the movie that's playing in your head, but it changes the experience you're having of the movie."
Practice self-compassion. "If you ran into a friend who had a miscarriage or was laid off, you'd wish them well, right?" he said. "What about compassion for ourselves? That's hard for a lot of people. Neurologically it starts with a sense of being cared about … you are bringing in some basic self-compassion. This is not self-pity, just a moment of thinking, 'I wish I didn't feel bad.' "
Get on your own side. "This is having that basic shift to, 'You know, I want to help myself and be an advocate for myself—be strong myself. I'm not against them, but I'm for me,' " he said.
Make a plan. "Ask yourself, 'What am I going to do about this? What am I doing out in the world and what will I do differently inside my own head?' " Hanson said. "While activating that plan, I remind myself that the same circuits that helped our ancestors run away from charging lions are causing this. So we need to mount an equivalent of calming, soothing, sensory response to activate the parasympathetic in the nervous system."
Trust your gut. "Not every negative thing you hear is true," he said. "Just because a source is telling you something they think to be fact, I do encourage people to take a step back and trust their intuition. There's a lot of intelligence in the gut and the heart, and that's what neuroscience is showing us. Very often our first take is the right take."
Hanson said it doesn't take years to make changes like these in the brain.
"The movement from zero to one is the biggest step of all," he said. "Just a half minute or two of deep breathing or relaxing the tongue can get the neural pathways moving in the right direction. … I've seen this as a therapist and as a guy in the real world."