Bodywisdom / Nancy Ivey
Neuroscientists have discovered that we remember bad experiences far easier than good ones, and that our brains are wired for survival rather than happiness. It wasn’t the happy-go-lucky individual that survived our ancient savannah habitat. Rather it was the hyper-vigilant and wary person who could fend off carnivorous predators or marauding tribes whose DNA endured. A correlate of this is that humans have a propensity to remember negative experiences and discount the positive.
Ruminating on intense bad experiences causes psychological problems as people get stuck in their past traumas and ignore the good vibes in the present. Learning about the brain helps individuals see their reactions as natural and enlarges the capacity for new responses.
When people track their arousal it gives them more opportunity to change and control harmful negative thoughts. This helps us rewire and re-sculpt our brain through neuroplasticity which is the brain’s capacity to develop throughout life. Our therapy is to notice when the brain starts getting activated and say, “There I go, thinking negative thoughts again.” Or, “There I go, moving into fight or flight again.” Or, simply interrupt the default mind by observing, “Thinking.”
We want to notice when we are aroused and when we are grounded in the present moment. We could all learn techniques for grounding. Hatha yoga is one such grounding practice as is mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness and yoga slow everything down and focus our attention on the present moment through posture and breath. Breathing gives time for the cortex (thinking brain) to respond to a threat so we can choose a more mindful response.
There are two pathways for fear. One path goes straight to the amygdala or fear center of the brain. The other path goes to the frontal cortex, or executive center, and then to the amygdala. The fast path gets triggered and activated before the cortex knows what’s going on. A famous example is walking on a trail and you see a snake in front of you. You jump back and a surge of adrenaline rushes into the bloodstream. Your heart races; and all of this before the brain can even say “snake.” A few seconds later, you notice it’s really a stick and everything calms down. The physiological response was much quicker than knowing the details.
Breathing stimulates the para-sympathetic nervous system, putting the brakes on arousal and giving time for the cortex to get involved. This integrates the brain as we wire in more positive and safe experiences.
Repetition and intensity help us develop new skills. When out hiking, really look at the flowers; their colors, shapes and smells. Listen to the wind or birdsong. Dwell in the small moments of beauty. And when you have them, notice them; such as the expression on your child’s face or the empathy in your partner’s eyes. Awakening to the present moment calms the reactive mind.
Knowledge is power and in order to unlock the mysteries of our heart it is helpful to have tools like neuroscience and yoga fortifying inner strength and balance for all.
Nancy L. Ivey teaches yoga at CSUB and locally. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.