In the age of positive neuroplasticity and believing our thoughts create our reality, we are encouraged to keep our minds turning in the direction of gratitude, happy thoughts and a positive outlook. There is real science backing up how useful this skill is, and as a species, it helps strengthen the parts of our brain that help us be more calm and happy. Sounds good to me!
Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain, discusses how our innate wiring is slanted toward avoiding danger and risk. Our survival as a species relies on our ability to stay alive, first and foremost. Everything that comes after that is deemed less important. Our brains are set up to keep us safe and to look for potential risks that may be lurking around the next corner. This is a useful mechanism when we are living outside with potential predators ready to attack.
It is less useful for us to be on high alert and to look at the current problems in our minds as things that put us at risk for death. Besides, also crucial to our survival is our ability to love and connect, digest food and reproduce. When our bodies are in survival mode, these other critical parts of our makeup are hampered. Long-term health problems often occur when a person is under chronic stress and their brain is flipped on to survival mode too often or for too long. According to Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, children who were raised under high-stress conditions (such as neglect, abuse, illness, parental addiction or mental health problems) had a much higher incidence of chronic adult illnesses compared to children who did not report such conditions. Their stressful histories caused their survival mechanisms to become over-developed, setting them up for a more activated stress response. So it’s no wonder that we all need to work on strengthening the parts of our brains that bring about peace, calm, positivity, happiness and gratitude.
What may need to be discussed more thoroughly, however, is that when someone has unprocessed trauma in his/her body, a subconscious buzz of danger continues to lurk in the background of every thought, feeling and action, they are unable to fully relax. Without acknowledging and feeling those stuck emotions, the baseline for that deep peace, calm and connection may not fully develop and a low-level stress response will likely be present. If you were to clean your bedroom by stuffing your things into your closet, the room looks clean on the surface, but the clutter is still there, and at some point, maybe when you have to move or remodel, you need to deal with those things.
Or you could just leave them for your children to contend with. Trauma responses get passed down through generations and studies have shown that entire cultures have developed a higher risk for PTSD based on histories of mass trauma—Native Americans, enslaved African Americans and Jewish people are a few of such populations. Your mother’s anxieties often become yours. Rachel Yehuda, a psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in the Bronx and a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai Hospital, has done studies that show that children of PTSD survivors had a three times higher risk of developing PTSD themselves, and a three to four times higher rate of depression or anxiety.
With these types of studies coming to light, it becomes compelling to want to actually sort through and clean up our inner world, for our own health and the health of our children.
The modern positive neuroplasticity methodology often includes meditation as a tool. Ask any long-term meditator and they will report that meditation is not jumping right into an empty mind. It is a process of slowing down enough to see what is actually going on in the mind. This often yields uncomfortable results. You begin to hear your voice in your head. You see your fears and your insecurity. You feel the sadness and loneliness that your busy life had concealed. All the parts of you that had been hiding around the corner seemingly come alive. And the practices of meditation are not geared to push away these thoughts and feelings—nor is it geared to grasp onto them. The practice of meditation is to practice being with what is actually happening. Here and now.
This is why the breath is such a wonderful tool—when we become aware of our breath, we are giving ourselves the gift of focus that tethers us to the present moment. It gives us a little bit of separation from those very real thoughts and feelings and reminds us that even when we are in complete despair, part of us is separate from that. With sadness and fear and anger there is also joy and peace and compassion. And if we sit in the observance for longer we may begin to see something beyond those thoughts and feelings: the very essence and truth of who we are. When we begin to know the bigger picture, then the positive feelings of gratitude and joy can be more easily witnessed. And when we see them more clearly, we can choose to focus on them more and the result is that we feel better.
Optimism creates greater resiliency in people. Focusing on the positive really does work when it comes to improving coping skills. The downside is that sometimes the optimism blinds you to what is actually happening, and can lead to denial of the truth, which could be detrimental. For example, J.D. Vance cites an expose that came out about a phenomenon occurring in the Appalachian communities nicknamed “Mountain Dew Mouth”. Lack of appropriate dental care, married with children drinking soda from an early age was creating a high incidence of tooth decay in these children. According to Vance, the people of this region responded to the story by being insulted and denying that there was a problem, even when the study so clearly showed that there was one. How can people change their situation when they are unable to clearly see what the situation is?
This is where the positivity movement can have a dark side. Resiliency is so very important to feeling happy in the world. But optimism often has its blind spots, and like the objects shoved into the back corner of your closet, one day someone will have to reckon with the emotions, thoughts, habits and situations that we have neglected to see. Hopefully they don’t seep out as one of the illnesses that Dr. Burke-Harris found in her childhood trauma survivors. Hopefully they don’t knock on the closet door as depression or anxiety. Hopefully you don’t stay in a situation that is bad for you. Only you, with a quiet and contemplative mind can start to see what your truth is. Only in listening to the hidden emotions and beliefs and seeing the habits can you begin to heal and move forward from them.
Focus on the positive. But observe the not-so-positive too. There is a message for you there. Find out what it has to say. Like a child, when our signals are witnessed and heard, they may not need to throw a temper tantrum. Even when some of the messages don’t paint a pretty picture, they are as valid and worthy of love as all of the positive things. Give these parts your loving attention. And also know that this part of you is not all of who you are. Listen and feel. You won’t get trapped. You won’t manifest bad things. Instead, you will become more intimately connected with the beautiful totality of you. And perhaps you get to clean up your inner world a little bit more.