There is a plethora of negative, scary, and overwhelming situations in the world right now. Around our beloved Lake Tahoe and the surrounding region, the recent Dixie and Caldor fires combined destroyed at least 2,322 structures. Covid-19 cases and deaths are on the rise once more which has dampened the hopes of many to go back to living a “normal” life. There has been an increasing polarization and resentment in families, friends, and communities based on differing beliefs and value systems. The Taliban has regained control in Afghanistan. Insurance brokerage Aon reports that in the U.S., climate-related events have quadrupled over the last 40 years, with severe weather events due to climate change increasing in frequency across the nation and world. The list goes on.
Now, this can all feel very daunting, overwhelming, depressing, and hopeless. However, each one of us is more in control of our emotional state and how we cope with these events than we might think. We can’t change the external events around us, but we can change what we focus on, what we spend our time thinking about, and what actions we choose to take.
What you focus on, you will feel.
Our brains are powerful tools, and if we learn to hone that tool rather than unconsciously let them run free and unchecked, they can help us feel better and make better decisions. If we let our brains focus on how horrible the world is right now, we will feel horrible. Turn on the news for 10 minutes, then check in and see how you feel after watching. You’re not likely to feel well. If you sit by a river and watch and listen to the water amble by as birds sing, how do you think you will feel? Likely a lot better than after watching the news.
Although the world is the same in each scenario, the subject of the brain’s focus is completely different, which is why you will feel different. Now I know this is a generalization and there are exceptions to every example, but for the sake of this article let’s assume a general consensus that sitting by a river focusing on listening to a bird would lead to a more positive emotional state than turning your attention to the news.
Learning how we can manage our mood by changing what we focus on requires first understanding a little bit more how our brain works. It is important to know that we are built for survival and reproduction. We have survived and evolved as a species over the last 2 million years due to our brains’ ability to make life saving decisions (fight or flight), and romantically attach and reproduce (love and lust). Unfortunately, this skill set is not needed in the same ways as it once was. Carnivorous animals and rival tribes are no longer a threat to our survival, we have lost too many animals to extinction, and the world is overpopulated. However, our brains have not evolved during all that external change and still unconsciously seek to protect us from threats.
The lower parts of our brain (the limbic system and brain stem) guide our thinking toward survival and reproduction with repeated, sometimes obsessive, thoughts regarding fear, love, and sex. The brain does this without conscious thought or intention to focus on those elements. Positive feelings of calm, acceptance, gratefulness, and contentment come from repeated positive thinking habits that engage the higher parts of the brain, known as the cerebral cortex. Over time, repeated thinking habits become part of one’s personality as they ingrain into lower parts of the brain.
If we are lucky, we learn positive thinking in our families of origin. But if you are like most people, practicing positive thinking habits takes conscious effort as we are naturally inclined to have negative thought patterns in order to survive. Science shows that practicing certain thinking habits leads to greater levels of happiness.
So, what might that look like in the face of all the external stressors in the world right now? Focus on what you have in common with others rather than what is different. Identify what is out of your control and emotionally let go; determine what is in your control and create an action plan. Practice smiling, recognize and replace self-limiting beliefs with more helpful beliefs, and focus on positive news stories.
The list goes on.
You can try this on your own, or a skilled therapist who is the right fit for you can help you get to a better place emotionally. The whole outside world does not need to dictate your inner life. What you focus on you will feel.