Covid-19. Quarantine. Stock market dive. Cancelled events. Job loss. Climate change. We have plenty of reasons to be frightened right now. We would do well to be prepared and purposeful in our approach to these challenges. What we don’t want to do is panic. Easier said than done when we’re stressed and anxious.
How do we stave off the panic while keeping an open heart and maintaining our humanity? I suggest practicing gratitude and loving kindness.
This isn’t a Pollyana-ish approach of denial—“just think good thoughts and everything will be okay”— this is a powerful way to cultivate resilience, compassion and inner strength.
You see, our brains are hardwired to focus on what’s wrong, what’s dangerous, what’s bad—in other words, the worst case scenario. This “fight, flight, freeze” response to danger or disturbance comes from our brain stem, the reptilian part of our brain that focuses on keeping us alive. This preoccupation with survival mode can serve us well when danger is imminent, but it can cripple us when facing anticipated problems, extended threats or future concerns. It can cause us to fixate on the negative and block out the positive.
This phenomenon is referred to as “negativity bias.” As Rick Hansen describes in his book Resilient, our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences and like Teflon for good ones. That’s why we so easily obsess about what’s frightening to us. As our anxiety ramps up, our creativity and our ability to imagine alternative scenarios shuts down, trapping us in worry, fear and panic. It’s extremely difficult to tap into our best selves when we feel this way.
Fortunately, we can counter the negativity bias with concentrated effort and intention. Studies in neuroscience have shown definitely that we can change our brain chemistry, that we can activate and stimulate those parts of our brain that register calm, safety, love, compassion, and imagination. Recognizing that our brains over-learn from bad experiences and under-learn from positive ones, we have to work extra hard at exercising our ability to take in the good. We need to take time every day to remember and embody things that bring us joy, that fill us with love and awe, that are beautiful, inspiring, nourishing.
One way to do this is through the practice of gratitude and the practice of loving kindness.
Research has shown that keeping a daily gratitude journal can have a profound impact on your well-being, your physical and emotional health, your ability to handle stress and your outlook on life. You can start by making a list of five things that you are grateful for every day. Try not to repeat anything during the course of a week. They can be simple things: the sun shining, reading a good book, the love of a friend, the soothing vibration of a cat’s purr, a delicious meal.
You can strengthen the positive effects of being grateful by enriching the experiences. Hansen suggest that you pick one thing you’re grateful for and use these steps to deepen its impact on your brain’s ability to take in the good:
- Lengthen it. Stay with the experience or the memory for five to ten seconds or more. The longer the neurons fire together in your brain, the more they tend to wire together to heighten your brain’s positive response to the experience.
- Intensify it. Open to the experience and let it be big in your mind. Turn up the volume as it were by breathing more fully into it, getting a little excited about it.
- Expand it. Notice other elements of the experience. For example, if you’re having a beneficial thought, look for related sensations or emotions.
- Freshen it. The brain is designed to learn from what’s new or unexpected. So look for what’s interesting or different about the experience. Imagine that you are having it for the very first time.
- Value it. We learn from what is personally relevant. Be aware of why the experience is important to you, what matters and how it could help you.
Once you’ve enriched the experience, allow yourself to really take it in, imagine absorbing it into your being and then reward yourself by tuning into whatever is pleasurable, reassuring, helpful or hopeful about the experience.
Enriching and absorbing an experience you’re thankful for will increase the activity of two neurotransmitter systems–dopamine and norepinephrine–that will flag the experience as a keeper for long-term storage in your brain and your nervous system.
Loving kindness is a meditation practice that comes from the Buddhist tradition. It begins with yourself and eventually encompasses all beings on Earth. It involves people you love and people who challenge you. I’ve taken to doing this as a walking meditation in the mornings. There are many variations on the loving kindness meditation. This is the one I have learned.
May I be free from suffering.
May I find joy.
May I be filled with love.
May I be at peace.
Now shift your focus outward and repeat the intentions for someone in each of these categories. Use the person’s name as you recite the meditation.
- Someone you love
- A good friend
- An acquaintance
- Someone you have difficulties with
- Someone you really don’t like
- All the beings of the world
I have recorded this meditation for your use. You can find it on my website here.
In these times of rapidly changing information, risk and restrictions, we would be well served to be as clear, calm, creative and imaginative as we can be. And to be compassionate, kind and loving. I invite you to try these practices of gratitude and loving kindness to help overcome the tendency to fixate on the negative and downplay the positive. Panic does not serve anyone. With so much we cannot control, it’s a comfort to me to realize that I can choose to be grateful, especially in times of crisis, and that I can set my intentions to be in loving kindness with all beings. As more of us embrace these practices, my hope is that we can remain open and receptive to creative ways of weathering these storms together with wisdom, kindness, and love.
For more resources, I also recommend the Greater Good Science Center website.