Recently I interviewed neuropsychologist Rick Hanson about his specialty: hardwiring happiness. Using neurological techniques, Hanson says, you can change the structure of your brain by building neuropathways for feeling good. “When it comes to negative experiences, your brain is like Velcro,” he said. “With positive experiences, the brain is like Teflon.” He went on to explain that for survival purposes, the brain learns quickly from threatening situations and more slowly from pleasurable ones. Still, he assured, the brain can change via deliberate choices, actions, and repetition.
I’ve seen proof of brain change over and over again in my work as a post-trauma coach. For example, 52-year-old Tracey wanted to overcome the effects of severe childhood abuse. She experienced frequent nightmares and insomnia, anxiety attacks, mood swings, and a frightening rage. Homebound by symptoms and disconnected from friends and even from herself, she told me, “I don’t expect to get my whole life back or to be as functional as a normal person. I’m way too old to change. If you can just help me feel a little bit better—and sleep!—I’ll be satisfied.”
Years of very physical child abuse had turned Tracey into a woman whose Velcro mind automatically saw threat, danger, and possible hurt everywhere, even inside her marriage—the place she was most safe.
Tracey’s negative perspective about the possibility for change is common. Clients tell me daily that they can’t change, then they experience awe as they evolve into individuals of strength, resilience, calm, compassion, and control. How do they do it? One way is by implementing Hanson’s idea in the area of identity—that is, through a focus on hardwiring happiness about who they are. With repeated positive experiences, the brain relearns and change occurs.
4 Ways to Retrain Your Teflon Brain
Recalibrate: Imagine your emotions as a swinging pendulum. At one extreme you feel fantastic; at the other you feel horrible. In the middle is neutral, a place where you feel “okay.” After adversity you may spend a lot of time at the horrible end of the pendulum. Swinging back to fantastic would be too much of a jump. Instead, make small adjustments that gently ease you back to a space of neutral. For example, in the midst of depression, plan a (short) outing with a friend who makes you feel good. This will recalibrate your emotional setting and help your brain refocus your attention in a more positive way.
Reclaim: While your original identity may have been formed without your conscious decisions, rebuilding who you are offers a chance to pick and choose the characteristics you wish to embody now. What do you wish to bring forward from the past? I’ve met people who thought they could never again love, feel, laugh, or [fill in the blank]; once they intentionally determined to bring those elements back into their lives, they found ways to.
Imagine: Today’s thoughts create who you will be tomorrow. Studies show that when you imagine something, the same areas of your brain light up as when you actually experience it. Repeatedly daydreaming about who you wish to become hardwires your brain to feel (and then seek) these outcomes.
Explore: Who you are today is more than the outcome of any adversity. You have learned and understood new things, even developed new values and priorities. Shifting an identity away from past unhappiness occurs through a receptive attitude of “what is.” Ask yourself, “Who am I now that this has happened?” Notice both the positive and negative answers. Investigate what each means and how they allow you to grow by exploring new opportunities.
Tracey adapted all four of these strategies in her quest to overcome the past. Through small steps, she identified and moved toward a sense of self that felt a little bit better day by day. She looked back at the strength she’d used to survive and deliberately pulled forward the qualities of courage, resourcefulness, and self-reliance. She outlined a clear picture of who she wanted to be and spent many dreamy hours imagining that success. And throughout the entire process, she saw obstacles and challenges as opportunities to try again.
Tracey’s identity evolution continues today: She’s back in the workforce, reconnected to friends, romancing her husband, and sleeping peacefully through the night.
“I have my whole life back,” she happily reports. “I never thought I could change so much!”