When you think of Ryan Seacrest, you probably don’t think of a thought leader in positive thinking. I don’t either, which is why I was so surprised to hear him invite radio listeners to call in and share a piece of good news. From across the country, voices gushed about sobriety, engagements, anniversaries, and promotions. In a world where rampant horrifying news is sensationalized to terrifying proportions, is Seacrest the feel-good antidote?
Decades ago an Arizona newspaper launched with a novel idea: only report on good news. It closed in less than a year. Though we like to share our good (soft) news, when it comes to hard news, we like to know the bad much more than the good. Our preoccupation with bad news, however, increases feelings of stress that have complicated emotional and physical repercussions. From terror attacks to race-driven politics to disappearing planes and rogue blizzards, the stress of our news-driven, über-informed world has consequences that can make us want to tune in to an hour of Seacrest listener testimonials just to remind ourselves that there really is a whole lot of good in the world.
If you don’t have time (or the desire to listen to Top 40) to shift the balance of your stress hormones from high to low, try any of these scientifically based processes to change not only your psychology but your physiology, too:
Sensitize Your Amygdala – The brain’s threat-detection center, your amygdala tunes to the most dominant experience. You can let that be an onslaught of disturbing news coverage or, according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, you can “take in the good.” A process that both helps your amygdala shift its focus while creating neuronal change that supports good feelings, “taking in the good” helps create a positive, more relaxed mental state built on neural pathways trained to seek good feelings. Based on Hanson’s ideas, try these steps:
- Create or notice your engagement in an activity or moment that makes you feel good.
- Slow down your focus to experience all the sensory details of the moment and what feels good about it.
- Hold that good feeling for 10-20 seconds (the amount of time it takes for your brain to create a new neural pathway) and imagine it expanding inside of you.
Reduce OCD Thinking – Obsessive-compulsive thinking occurs when the brain gets stuck in a repetitive track. Normally, you have the ability to shift your attention from one topic to another. During periods of high stress, however, lower brain regions driven by instinctual survival mode can hijack your ability to direct attention. As a result, your mind may get hung up obsessing over a single subject without relief. This 2-step process that helps you relabel and redirect allows the brain to unlock itself from the pattern:
- Relabel: Observe your stuck thought pattern and identify it, i.e. say, “My brain has gotten caught in an unbroken loop.”
- Redirect: Deliberately shift your focus to a subject, activity or task that creates a good/pleasant sensation and experience (ideally engage in this for thirty minutes).
Holistically Produce Oxytocin – We all know this hormone as a “bonding” agent that promotes trust and connection. It is, in fact, the element that scientists believe activates the “tend-mend” response—your body’s antidote to the fight/flight survival response. You can change your physiology (and reduce your chemical stress response) by increasing levels of oxytocin—and you can do this in under two minutes. Hugging yourself immediately and naturally increases levels of oxytocin. Also try these other holistic options: have an orgasm (for men, this creates oxytocin only when you’re with someone you love), show compassion, laugh, take a walk, listen to soothing music, or eat naturally oxytocin-raising foods like eggs, bananas, and the spice, pepper.
Naturally Reduce Cortisol – The more your amygdala activates, the more your cortisol rises and gets stuck at a high level; this turns you into an anxiety-driven machine. Cortisol is a signaling hormone: Its fluctuation up and down informs your body when to react to danger or spend time in rest and repair. In prolonged states of stress, cortisol pegs in the high range, which prevents your body from getting the message to relax. To reclaim control over this process, try breathwork.
- The optimal number of breaths is five per minute. A scientifically proven breathing count that helps reduce stress is 4-4-6-2: Breathe in for a count of four; hold for four; breathe out for six; hold for two.
- Try this process and see how it feels. Most people find that the first five cycles or so feel uncomfortable and awkward, but then the body settles and an enormously wonderful shift occurs.
- If the numbers of the count don’t work for you, create another set that more aptly suits your body’s natural tendency, maybe 2-2-4-1 or 6-6-8-4. Always make sure that your exhale is longer than your inhale.
Deliberately Activate Your Left Pre-frontal Cortex – The more you engage your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain dedicated to executive decision making and inhibitory activities—especially of the deeply instinctual inner brain), the more calm and in control you’ll feel. Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel suggests using the “Wheel of Awareness” as one of your cortex-engagement tools:
- Imagine a bicycle wheel: You are the center hub from which all spokes lead out to the rim.
- You are the peaceful felt sense at the hub: Even in moments of stress, you are this central, calm self. During intense moments, identify the presence of this core self while simultaneously noticing how the other frazzled parts of you (the spokes) feel.
- The spokes attend to your thoughts, feelings and perceptions: Train yourself to mark the difference between the calm central hub and the chaotic feelings of the spokes. Say to yourself, “Even while those temporary feelings of fear exist, I am the calm at the center of the hub.”
With 24-hour news outlets on cable, Internet, and smartphones, it’s increasingly impossible to avoid our information-driven world. Still, we have the choice to transcend the bombardment of negative facts; we retain the choice to turn it all off and shift our focus from external to internal world. That is, after all, what Seacrest offers excited listeners the opportunity to do. He doesn’t ask fans to report good “hard” news; he invites them to report on what is meaningful in their own lives. Tapping into that world, which we can do through public sharing or the more private practices outlined above, offers an escape from the chaotic whirlwind of evil, danger, and unhappily unexpected events any time we choose. This escape is especially effective because this choice is activated by our subjective internal values and purpose, which are always outside the reach of the world’s objective events.