• Dr Emily Barney

Creating happiness through changing your thinking

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Is it possible to feel genuinely happy in the middle of a global pandemic the likes we have never seen before? The answer is, of course, YES. This is a neuropsychological certainty.

This is because the way we think about situations and what we tell ourselves really does determine how we feel and happiness or unhappiness are due to our own thoughts. So, if we tell ourselves we are going to feel anxious, angry, frustrated, fed up, then that is precisely how we are going to feel and that determines ultimately what we can or can’t do.

Not really a huge revelation for most people reading this though is it? Something most people probably know already. So why am I writing this now?

For a lot of people reading this, I am writing this short blog because in all the changes that have happened recently we may have forgotten just how powerful our own mind is and can be. So maybe you might consider the message in this blog to be a helpful reminder of this superpower that is available to you right now.

Or perhaps, more importantly, for those who are reading this who are just too tired or overwhelmed to process anything properly, I am writing with a message of hope that the information may spark curiosity or a decision to change something or try doing something differently.

Embracing our Limbic System

The bottom line of the job of our primitive / emotional mind (the limbic system) is to ensure our survival. The Amygdala, the central and most influential bit of this part of the brain, we cannot switch off, and neither would we want to if we want to continue to live. It is always scanning the environment subconsciously for danger to keep us safe.

When a change in the environment is perceived as a threat, the Amygdala will become activated and produces the fight, flight, freeze response which is a survival response that we don’t have any control over and it can prompt us to do some inappropriate things at times (we have all seen this unfold in front of our eyes over recent weeks) and it might help develop a compassion to our panic buying neighbour to remember that we all have very little control over that initial instinct/reaction, that initial response when our brain has been flipped into survival mode. With time, for most, this initial response subsides as the brain takes in new information that simmers down the amygdala.

Threat Perception

So, we can all agree that there is a threat in the environment right now all over the world. And yet, we will all perceive the level of threat/danger to varying degrees depending on our context, our specific risk factors or vulnerability for ourself or loved ones. For some, we could argue that the risk/threat is perceived as being too far removed and not prompting the desired course of self-isolation required. If the coronavirus was significantly harmful to children, then we might have seen the world responding quicker to the threat and more motivated to stick to the rules, because this taps into our primitive motivation to protect our young, and this is a motivational force like no other.

In fact, the motivational force/instinct to protect those that we love, not just the young, but our tribe, whoever they may be, is so powerful and hard wired and can be more powerful than the instinct to avoid danger for ourselves.

We can use the power of this instinct to help us now

The power of love

Imagine a loved one. Your child/children, nieces/nephews, siblings, parents, partners. Imagine that you are helping to protect them and keep them safe as you decide to pay more attention to your thoughts, knowing that by doing this you will be helping them to feel safer, realising that you and only you can allow thoughts to live in your mind.

It will be helpful now, particularly as we hear new concepts forming in the media that can spread anxiety and worry, new made up concepts such as “isolation fatigue,” whatever this means. It will be helpful now more than ever to use the power of our minds, this, "super power" that we all have available right now, to tell ourselves that we can start again, fresh, from this very moment. We can decide now to start living our life in a more meaningful way, enjoying more moments, appreciating the wonder of being alive and well, here and now. And realising that there is no need to worry about the past or maybe more importantly what might happen in the future because it might never happen, we don’t know what is going to happen in the future, no person does.

It can be helpful to remember that we are not our thoughts. Our mind can produce many different thoughts a minute (particularly if highly anxious). To constantly try to react to them or understand them is an exhausting and impossible task and diverts our attention away from what is going on right in front of our faces and from being truly present in the moment. Once we remember to detach ourselves from our thoughts and chose a stance more like a non-judgemental observer, then we are in a different state of consciousness/awareness. This state feels more solid, more constant, confident and in control. And when we are confident, calm and in control, we are happier.

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