Over the last few decades, studies in neuroscience have shown that we can actually physically rewire our brains. We can change the “default network” we were born with, the one that ensured the survival of our primitive ancestors who lived in a very different world.
Our “fight-flight” reaction and strong memory for painful experiences are hardwired from birth. Our brains detect negative information faster than positive information and are drawn to bad news. This hardwiring is further reinforced as we grow up because our negative experiences leave an indelible trace in our brain. The brain continues to learn and change itself throughout our life.
The good news is we are capable of over-riding our primitive reactions that don’t serve us well, and creating new neural pathways that reduce stress and irritability and generate more happiness and wisdom in our lives.
These 7 practices create incremental, accumulative changes in the neural structure of your brain and can improve the effectiveness of your leadership and the quality of your life.
1. If someone on your team disappoints you or lets the team down, allow your feelings to dissipate before you say or do anything.
Pay attention to what you are feeling, without reacting further until it dissipates to limit the amount of epinephrine and cortisol stress hormones released by your brain. Acting out when you are upset creates a temporary discharge, but ultimately prolongs your stress because eventually you will need to deal with the fall-out from your behavior. Some people think the solution is to cut off their feelings. However, this is also only a temporary solution as your feelings go underground and continue to drive you unconsciously.
2. If you feel angry, hurt or annoyed, don’t overlay meaning onto it.
We don’t think rationally when feeling a strong negative emotion. Instead we draw conclusions that reinforce our negative views. Sweeping generalizations like “He can’t be trusted because he always let us down” or “She really doesn’’t really care about our team and our work” reinforce the current neural pathways.
Rational thought will be more quickly available if you allow yourself to stay with the feeling without making assumptions about what the event means. Wait until the feeling has passed before you analyze what it means or decide what you will do.
3. If you are in a tense meeting, check your breathing.
When feeling tense, notice if your breathing is shallow. Activate your calming parasympathetic nervous system by taking a few long breaths, inhaling deeply and slowly exhaling.
4. If you find yourself replaying an upsetting scenario in your mind, stop.
If reviewing a scenario does not bring insight or resolution, don’t keep replaying it in your mind. You are reinforcing negative neural pathways. Instead, create a new pathway by associating it with a positive memory. When the unpleasant memory arises, recall a similar experience where you experienced success or recall an experience with someone who appreciated you. This will gradually infuse the disturbing memory with a positive feeling. The memory won’t go away, but the strong bite will.
5. Choose words and actions that benefit others.
The more you consciously choose actions and words that benefit others, the further your prefrontal cortex develops. This is the part of your brain that sets goals, makes plans, shapes emotions and that enables you to over-ride your primitive instincts. Compassion for others, and for yourself, is the motivating force that drives the desire to benefit others. When you are having difficulty feeling compassionate, remember someone for whom you do feel compassion, perhaps a child or someone you love. This memory will increase your ocytocin (associated with blissful closeness and love) and your ability to access compassion more fully.
6. Savor your positive experiences.
Positive things are happening all the time, but our brain is wired to focus on the negative. We notice something positive and then our attention quickly shifts away. Counteract that by consciously paying attention to the small things like the smile of someone who passes you, the taste of your breakfast, or the beauty of a sunset. Extending your attention on pleasant experiences increases your level of the neurotransmitter dopamine and your ability to control your attention.
7. Focus your attention on what is happening in the present moment.
Your brain learns from what you attend to. The best way to shape new neural circuits is to stay present with whatever is arising in your awareness. It is only in the present moment that we experience real happiness, love and wisdom.
* For more information on neuroscience studies and the application of neuroscience to daily life and leadership, I recommend the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and Outsmart Your Brain by Marcia Reynolds.