“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
John Milton, Paradise Lost 1667
The role of our emotions in controlling our lives is not a new one, as the quote shows. The rise of the positive psychology movement has provided ample proof that thinking positively really is life changing. But no matter how well we know this theory, we are still at the mercy of our emotions. Managing emotions is complex and difficult. They amplify our thoughts, perceptions and attitudes and distort our view of life.
What positive psychology has discovered is fascinating from the perspective of managing our lives. We hope that happiness is just around the corner, and we will be happy when we have more money, a better partner, a nicer house or a better job. In fact the opposite is true. Being happy and viewing the world through positive lenses is an excellent predictor of success and good health.
Emotionally intelligent individuals are those who are able to recognize and express their emotions, have positive self-regard and are able to reach their potential and lead happy lives. They are able to empathise with others, have rewarding relationships, cope with stress and are optimistic and flexible. Their ability to lead fulfilling lives is provided by their attitude, which leads to successes. The underlying brain wave patterns that are required to achieve this kind of behavior are termed ‘balance and harmony’. The brain needs to be flexible in order to rise to every day challenges without strain, and to be in the kind of balanced condition that enables it to confront situations for what they are, as opposed to bringing the entire emotional history to bear on every occasion. Brain wave optimization is a process that enables the brain to let go of stored stress. The simplicity of being able to face life without baggage is life changing.
Positive emotions cause coherence in the nervous system and smooth out erratic heart rhythms. People’s perceptions of the world are more accurate and they are able to access creative solutions to problems. Scientifically, the reduction is stress hormones and the increase in anti aging and immune boosting hormones can be measured when positive emotions are enhanced.
All of this is nice to know. But it doesn’t change the fact that for some of us, the glass is half empty. And the cycle is self perpetuating. Sometimes our reactions to situations happen so rapidly that there is no time for our logical minds to remind us to look on the bright side. Often life just seems hard and bleak and the problems insoluble, and positive thinking is too much of a stretch. It’s not hard to see that negative emotions cause stress in the nervous system and heart, leading in the long term to health problems. So the imbalance in the brain is constantly increasing, since reacting to a situation increases the trauma involved which is stored in the brain.
This is not a reflection on the weakness or lack of strength of a person. It is related to the way that the brain has stored stress and traumatic events. The amygdala is the part of the brain that searches incoming information for emotional content. Since this happens before the thinking part of the brain evaluates the information, emotional reactions are fast and overwhelm logic. In many people the amygdala is on high alert, caused by a lifetime of stress accumulation of all kinds. Post traumatic stress disorder is the most extreme example of this reaction. An example is a woman who, having been hijacked at gun point, is now unable to fill her car with fuel because the approaching petrol attendant sets off her oversensitive nervous system and she experiences a panic attack. Her system is primed to see danger is the most innocuous daily events, and life becomes torturous and unbearable.
There are solutions. One of the most effective is Brain Wave Optimisation, where the brain lets go of its stored trauma during training, and returns to a state of balance. From this state, and ideally coupled with therapy or coaching to provide new coping skills that prevent future stress build ups, situations can be calmly evaluated and responded optimally. The holy grail of seeing life from a positive slant then becomes a viable option which leads to the possibility of a happy and fulfilling life.