You know that stress is bad for you. Yet you endure it every day. Modern life is stressful. Whether it's work, your boss, your spouse, your kids, your parents, driving or simply trying to fathom what to eat today. Your life is filled with stressors. So what can you do about it?
Imagine you are visiting a theme park
The best rides always have a long queue and you look with disdain at a group of ‘bullies’ who cut the line and push in front of you.
Instantly your threat response fires up and you feel the urge to fight back, or perhaps give up and walk away from the spot you have been holding onto for the past hour.
Most people say nothing externally, muttering to themselves about how unfair it is and what they would like to do. Yet meek and mild you keep your head down in case the ‘bullies’ turn on you.
Hope – the positive expectation of future good
Many people scoff at the notion of remaining optimistic in light of the “facts” presented daily in the news, at your workplace, in your bank balance. Suggesting that highly optimistic people (like me) are deluding themselves.
Facts is facts right? Yes facts is facts. But, and this is where it gets really interesting…
The amygdala is the emotional centre of your brain. It is well known that it responds ever so quickly to fear and anxiety.
And there is another part of your brain involved: the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which I have likened to a trigger-happy security guard constantly on the lookout for threats.
At the slightest hint of something fearful, the Amygdala picks this up and activates the fear response. Even if you are not consciously aware of it! For example, you have the news on TV or radio as you prepare breakfast for your kids. Whilst you are not paying attention to the news, your ears pick up the bad news, your eyes catch tiny glimpses of the TV screen, and even when less than 30 milliseconds a fear-inducing image triggers your amygdala into preparing a fear response. And at less than 30ms you do not consciously know about it.
- How many fearful images do you know that you see each day?
- How many are within range of your senses but you do not know that you know about them?
Of course, you can’t answer that, but you can surmise that it is more than those you know about. All of this incoming sensory information that, for you, poses even a tiny threat to your beautiful life, induces a level of fear in your brain and body. And you wonder why you feel stress and anxiety??
The Amygdala puts the fear-inducing emotions to the front of the queue for processing, in large part because our very survival depends on our readiness to respond to threats. With so much fear inducing phenomena to process, there’s no space (or energy) left to process good decision making let alone the more fun stuff.
So what about the ACC? The ACC, unlike the Amygdala, has a bias towards future positive events over future negative events or any past events. As a result of positive optimism for the future, the ACC activates its connections with the amygdala and causes the amygdala to activate to this salience as well. Fear becomes less important and loses its place at the front of the queue for processing.
Instead of keeping your head down, muttering internally in anger at the bullies at the front of the queue in the theme park, you leave the line, go to the kiosk and spend money on the VIP pass. Then saunter back right passed the ‘bullies’ holding your VIP pass out front to ensure that those ‘nice’ people in the queue aren’t thinking that you are pushing in… no, you have bought the right to push in!
- You purchased optimism.
- You bought hope, the positive expectation of good.
Straight in to the front of the line, the ‘bullies’ are displaced from their front-of-the-line spot and have to wait while you satisfy your positive expectation of fun. But… I hear the cry, you can hope all you like but the ride might still suck. You are absolutely right. So what if the ride sucks… even when you get to go first?
Well, quick question. If the ride sucks (for you). Then it would have sucked had you waited another 2 hours. Would you rather have waited, seething internally, for longer. Or, would you rather enjoy the brief moment of legitimately pulling onto the front, shoving the ‘bullies’ backward and find out that the ride sucked sooner?
Now you can continue with your VIP pass to other rides, other possibilities… or you can stay in line, bitter and resentful and miserable.
The choice is yours.
- Where do you want to end up?
- What will you get if you achieve what you want?
- What gains will you make?
- If, for a moment, you believe that you are going to reach your goals, what would that mean for you?
- Where can you picture yourself if this works out?