The clock reads 4:00 A.M. and I finish nursing my newborn. I place him in his crib and he falls asleep quickly. I snuggle back under the covers, eager to sleep when my brain randomly pulls out a memory from oblivion. Now, I am cringing inwardly at an awkward social interaction from years ago. Before I can stop it, I’m on a roll, reanalyzing every embarrassing moment I can think of.
Why, WHY do I do this to myself?
And not just rehashing events from the past. My brain also enjoys conjuring up unlikely worst-case scenarios for events yet to come until I feel hopeless and out of control.
Has anyone else been personally victimized by their own brain?
I have mild anxiety, and sometimes I let negative thoughts get the best of me. It takes effort to combat these toxic thoughts, and what I found works best for me is brain training. Yep, training my brain to be happier. Is it possible? Yes! And you don’t have to take my word for it – current findings in brain science confirm that it is possible to rewire your brain to encourage happiness.
“Your brain is the organ that learns,” and your “mental states become mental traits” (Hanson). The more time we spend ruminating on negativity, the more our brains will learn to think this way. But the good news is we can break the cycle by forming new habits. We can influence the way we think by focusing on the good rather than the bad, and therefore, encourage happier thinking to come more naturally. However, the pursuit of happiness takes commitment. This 8-month-long study concluded that happiness interventions are very effective, but only when the participants felt motivated to increase their happiness, and knew of proper activities to do so.
Once I realized that my brain is a muscle like any other, able to be trained and toned, I decided to work on cultivating my own happiness. I am not a medical expert, but I can honestly say that the following brain exercises help me tremendously when it comes to managing my anxiety and pessimistic thinking.
Neutralize Your Self-Talk
I am my own worst critic. Too many times I chastise myself over something small or silly instead of focusing on what I do right. I’m not alone! There are many people who find that their self-talk is more negative than positive. Negative thinking leads to destructive behaviors and dampens happy experiences, but the pattern can be broken by neutralizing the narrative in your head. For example, in a moment of weakness, you might think, “I am a terrible mother.” But if you stop and take a second to neutralize your thinking, that statement could become, “Being a mother is hard. I am a mother.”
Create a Gratitude Routine
Research shows that practicing gratitude has many mental health benefits. “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships” (Harvard Health Publishing).
Here are three simple ways you could practice gratitude:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Before going to sleep, write down three things that you are thankful for.
- Write gratitude letters. Who are you grateful for and why? Tell them. Sending the letters is optional. It is the thought process that matters most, although I’m sure they would appreciate reading them!
- Use an app! There are many gratitude apps to choose from. I like Grateful: A Gratitude Journal because of its simple interface and fun prompts. You can even set a reminder in the app so you don’t forget to take the time to record your thoughts.
Allow Yourself to Feel Happy
According to the psychologist, Rick Hanson, it is easier for your brain to focus on bad experiences than the good. “If the mind is like a garden, the ‘soil’ of your brain is more fertile for weeds than for flowers.” Taking time to cherish happy moments and feelings will remind your brain to continue to do so in the future. Learn to recognize the small moments that bring you enjoyment, such as the first sip of coffee in the morning, a long shower, or a hug. Slow down and note how these moments make you feel, and save them to recall later when you need a moment of peace. By relishing even the smallest moments, you are hardwiring your brain to maintain lasting feelings of happiness (Hanson).
By far, the most important thing I have learned about my mental health is maintaining happiness requires effort and work. Do I still feel anxiety? Absolutely. But now that I have started working on happier habits, I feel more equipped to handle my negative thought patterns and stop anxiety before it starts.
Keep in mind the advice here cannot replace medical advice from your doctor. If you are experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide, and need to speak to someone, call the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) available 24/7.
Hanson, Rick. “How to Grow the Good in Your Brain.” Greater Good, Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, 24 Sept. 2013, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_grow_the_good_in_your_brain.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier.