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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

It's Amazing How Much...

Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: Noticing the Little Things

Noticing the Little Things. Neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral, notes that, “dozens of studies in recent years have shown the benefits of gratitude. Perhaps most importantly, gratitude improves mood. When you think about and express more gratitude, it’s easier to feel positive emotions.” Gratitude also improves physical health, enhances sleep and increases a felt sense of social support. One mode of gratitude is to focus on little things: an odd-looking bug, a colorful leaf, one piece of chocolate.

It's Amazing How Much...How Little Will Do

Note: This post is an updated version of one of my earliest posts, "Better Living Through Chemistry (It's Not What You Think)."

As humans we seem to be attracted, perhaps even addicted at times, to the negative. As psychologist Rick Hanson says, our brains have "a negativity bias that makes [them] like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones."

Biologically this gave our ancestors a survival edge. If you missed noticing a beautiful tree you might have a little less pleasure in your life. But if you missed a stalking lion you might not have a life at all.

However, given the overabundance of stress from real and potential threats in our modern culture (via the media, while driving a car, etc.), our brains and bodies may be in a state of overwhelm much of the time. This can lead to a variety of stress-related illnesses and events including diabetes, stroke and heart attack. All those stress chemicals, like adrenaline, may make us feel more alive in the short run but in the long run they may end up doing us in.

The good news is that we can learn to re-shape our brains to notice the good and have a more positive focus. I wrote a blog about this a couple of years ago, based on neuropsychologist Rick Hanson's book, Hardwiring Happiness.

But there's a problem for some of us with feeling better--it may make us anxious. Some of you are scratching your heads, saying, "Wait, what?" But I expect others may be nodding in agreement.

Alas, it is true. Feeling good can be pretty scary for some of us. For one thing, as noted above, our brains are not used to feeling peaceful, at least not in the modern world. Since our bodies produce energy-elevating adrenaline, cortisol, etc. when we're stressed, perhaps some part of us may unconsciously fear a loss of that energy and stimulation if those chemical levels begin to decrease.

For those who grew up with lots of stress and/or trauma, difficult or painful or fearful feelings may be the norm. In some mysterious way we may have bonded with those feelings. For some there may have been little else to bond to. So if the feelings and the related neurochemicals ease, it may feel like yet another loss to deal with.

It is also possible that stressed or dysfunctional parents or siblings, perhaps those struggling with addiction or mental illness, were able to provide good care or good presence some of the time but then inexorably sank back into their old hurtful patterns. That kind of up and down would mean that a child would often experience some degree of safety or nurture just before the inevitable fall back into pain and difficulty. If this pattern occurred over and over, you can see how a child-brain, focused on survival as all human brains are, might begin to equate feeling better with an inevitable descent into more pain and suffering.

Or life may have been so difficult growing up that a child had to shut down in many ways in order to make it through. Therefore any unfreezing, even to feel better, may feel too threatening.

So, how to deal with this? You could call it better living through chemistry. Though, to be more accurate, it should be better living through an analogy to a chemical process that many of us experimented with in high school.

I'm talking about titration. That is, adding one ingredient to another drop by drop. Titration becomes necessary if you need to combine two substances that have strong, even explosive, reactions to each other when combined in large amounts.

Okay, I know some of you wise guys out there purposefully added Substance B to Substance A too quickly in your chemistry class, in order to cause an explosion--or just make a big frothing mess. I'll 'fess up--I might have done that too. Though, in fact, I was usually a very good girl.

In any case, can you begin to see what this might mean in terms of focusing on positive things and allowing some good feelings? You just do it a tiny bit at a time. One drop. And then wait. See how you feel. If it feels too scary, wait a little more. Then try another drop. Or, if the test tube seems to be getting hot, get up, walk around, or put it away for another day. The goal here is tiny, incremental shifting. No explosions. No added stress.

Maybe you can allow just a little bit of good, instead of following an old protocol of yelling at yourself if you still have some fear, or can't allow good feelings. Those old critical ways are not a part of this drop-by-drop system. But if you fall into them out of long habit, be kind to yourself about that too. Drop by drop.

Our culture is all about "Big is Better" and "Just Do It!" so the idea of tiny shifts bringing about deep transformation is a sea change. But it's a concept that is growing in popularity, especially with practitioners who specialize in treating trauma. It has been foundational in my own recovery.

Hugh Milne, one of the shining lights of the healing arts world, says, "It's amazing how much how little will do." So true. If you want to feel a little better, remember drop at a time.

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Chocolate, DeBrand Fine Chocolate

Field of flowers, Olga Filenenko, unSplash

In the lab, University of Virginia

Drop of water, Sergio Silva, unSplash


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