As humans, our brains are wired for survival, so many functions that happen automatically are for problem solving, assessing danger, and planning escape or battle. The brain likes to scan to find things that are wrong or bad about our situations. Again, this is for survival and of course, in an emergency situation this can be wonderful and even life saving, but for most of our days it isn’t going to save our life.
The good news is that the latest research shows our brains to be very open to change. Neuroplasticity means that we can change the paths our brains typically go in to match the setting of our lives in today’s world and get more enjoyment and less worry and more resilience when facing difficult situations.
There are many tools to help create new pathways in the brain, I want to share a very simple, yet profound tool. A notebook. This notebook can become a place dedicated to journaling. If you have tried journaling before and found it to be cumbersome or not for you, stay with me a little longer, there are many different types of journaling and they fit all sorts of personalities and needs. You don’t have to write a “Dear Diary” sort of account of your day to be “journaling.”
The one I want to share with you is called a Gratitude Journal. This style of journal is especially helpful when you are going through a rough time in your life, or when you have trouble shaking off the unpleasant things that are happening in your life. It could be little things like a traffic light that made you late for work or larger problems like a sick loved one, or perhaps even illness for yourself.
Because our brains are set up to scan for danger and problems, and then problem solve, we have to remember that the default setting of the brain is to focus on the problem. Your amygdala’s main job is to problem solve and boy is it an enthusiastic worker, always ready to show up, even when the problem just needs time to settle.
When you give your brain a new task, in this case, writing daily in a gratitude journal we can change the thoughts we have been dwelling on and instead embrace positive thoughts. For most people this doesn’t come naturally and this is why the method of writing it in a journal is helpful. What we focus on grows stronger.
To begin a gratitude journal you can use any type of notebook you have. The key is that the notebook is a dedicated space for your gratitude writings. Next, choose a time each day that you will jot down a few things that you are grateful for. This could be just when you wake up, or before you go to sleep for the night. Tying this new habit to something you already do each day will make it easier to incorporate into your life.
Each day you can reflect back on the last 24 hours and think of things you are grateful for. It can be anything at all, there is no wrong answer. It could be, “I am grateful that I remembered to take out the trash tonight so I can sleep in tomorrow,” “I am grateful I got to talk to my friend today. She really knows how to make me laugh.” Anything goes! The key is that you find positive things.
Let’s say that you have a terrible day, one where really everything goes wrong. You may be tempted to skip journaling and sulk in your bad mood or have a glass of wine and call it a night. This is a day where it’s even more important to do the gratitude journal, because remember, we are teaching our brain new tricks. “Even though I was late for work today, I am grateful that I arrived safely.” “Even though the baby cried most of the night, I am grateful that I have an online mom group to feel less alone.” You aren’t ignoring your problems, but you are teaching your brain to also look for the good in the situation, or the good exists in other areas of your life. When you do this, research shows that you are setting the stage to become a happier person and studies have even shown better sleep, less fatigue and more satisfaction with life.
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Some say it takes 21 days for a new habit, but I find that if you pair it with something you already do every day it's easier. You can do it! One day at a time. Remember that it is a "practice" and what we practice grows stronger but it doesn't mean we rock it every single day. Be gentle with yourself as you take these new steps.
Thanks a lot for the great article! I will definitely try this method! But as You rightly pointed out, there is always a great temptation to drop the case half way. How long does it take for a person to develop a new habit? With a bad mood, you often have to do something through force, I'm afraid I really won't be enough for a long time…