By Mila McManus MD and Nancy Mehlert, MS
Your subconscious mind has one goal. From primitive times to this very day, it focuses on how to survive. Staying alive directs your subconscious mind to exercise caution, err on the safe side, fear the unknown, and avoid danger. All of that worked well when food was hard to find, dangerous wild animals were abundant, and we didn’t have roofs over our heads. In today’s modern world, where we live in relative safety and comfort, our unconscious mind can drive negativity, pessimism and being overly sensitive and cautious. When we allow this subconscious thought pattern to prosper, it can create unhappiness, increased anxiety and stress, and poor health. The good news is that our conscious mind can exercise its “muscles” and re-route neurological pathways in the brain towards positive thinking. The brain is very flexible (called neuro-plasticity), and given practice, we can become happier and more positive. When we do this, we also become healthier. Here’s why:
Our unconscious and subconscious brain operates from the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system takes care of the things we don’t have to think about or control, such as heart beat, digestion, breathing, blood sugar levels and blood pressure. It has two parts (sympathetic and parasympathetic) and some functions occur in one part while other functions in the other. So, think about a sport such as tennis where there are two players and only one ball. Both players cannot have the ball at the same time. The ball is in the court of only one player at a time. It is impossible for both players to have the ball simultaneously. Similarly, either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic is dominant at any given time.
One branch of this system handles emergencies. It helps you when you need to hurry up, run from danger, protect yourself from being harmed, and fight for survival.
It helps you remember past bad experiences so you can avoid them in the future. It makes you dwell on past pains, mistakes and live out of fear that they may recur. Pile onto that our hectic, fast paced lives, with very busy schedules flying from one thing to the next, unhealthy diets and poor sleep, and we can easily find ourselves in a constant state of fight or flight.
The other branch of this system, the parasympathetic, handles “rest and digest”. It helps you to rest, calm down, sleep well, digest your food effectively, and heal from illness, pain and grief. It is here that a meal tastes good and digests without upset, where sleep comes easily and deeply, where a sense of well-being and stamina are partners with happiness.
If only one system can fire the ball at a time, and we spend most of our time fleeing and fighting, how will we ever digest, heal and rest? When we live full of negativity, regret and fear, or have a schedule so full that we don’t rest, we are forcing the ball to stay in one player’s court. This is who controls the game and wins the game. That means, unless you lead your mind and lifestyle to move to the other system, your body won’t successfully digest, rest, restore and heal.
How can you shift from the sympathetic system to the healing and restorative parasympathetic system? Obviously, clearing your schedule, deep breathing, and healthier eating choices are helpful. In addition, our friend Melissa Templeton*, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, offered up some actions that you can take to achieve a greater sense of well-being and happiness. Here are her suggestions:
- Force yourself to smile big for 20 seconds or more. This makes the body release serotonin, an uplifting neurotransmitter which calms the brain and increases happiness. Try it in the car while you are driving. Just smile yourself silly all the way home. You will be surprised to discover the tension in your shoulders has dropped and your spirits are lifted.
- Put a few good mantras into your mind to use every day. Mantras are short, easy thoughts to repeat over and over that are positive. Good examples include:
- Today is going to be the best day ever.
- There is nothing I can say or do to change another person.
- I can change me and I’m worth it.
- I am getting better and better every day.
- I am worthy of love and respect.
- Make a gratitude list. Write down as many things, big and small, as you can for which you are thankful. Charles Dickens once said, “Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some”.
- Listen to your self-talk. Listen for negative words and sentences that include words such as ought to, should have, must do. Look for areas where you have a very rigid rule or sentences such as “I can’t stand it when….” or “It drives me crazy when…” Push these negative thoughts out and replace with your mantra.
- We need physical touch 17+ times a day. Hold a hand, give a hug, rub a back, give a kiss, pet your dog, hug your cat – reach out and touch those you love or those who need some love. Everyone needs it.
- Perform a few rituals every day. For example, making your bed first thing every morning gives an immediate sense of accomplishment and order. Laying out clothing for the next day or preparing your to do list gives a sense of preparation and control for the day to come, which helps with sleep. Small accomplishments lead to greater accomplishments during the day.
You can see why it’s impossible to be angry and happy at the same time. When you smile and practice thankfulness and positive thinking, you can force your brain to stop fleeing and fighting and, instead, get it to rest, digest and restore.
*Melissa Templeton, MA, LPC, LMFT practices Marriage and Family Therapy in Spring and Huntsville, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 936-661-3640.