Why Don’t We Do What We ‘re Supposed To Do?

Have you ever decided excitedly to embark upon a health improvement project, like going on a diet, shown great progress hour after hour of your first day, and then, at the eleventh hour, you slip after a difficult conversation with your teenager?

If you have, you are not alone! Everyone slips at some point when trying to change their habits.

What causes this great gap between what we want and know we should be doing and what we actually do? What causes us to slip up?

Our habitual responses may conceal our real wants and needs and sabotage our life.

What we don’t know is a major risk factor for our health. However, awareness holds real power!

I want to give you five guideposts that shed some light on why we don’t do what we are supposed to do. I hope they will help you understand why we slip up and motivate you to use any “slip-ups” as catalysts to launch your own revolution and fundamentally shift your power.

You can gain the ultimate power of freedom of choice and use it to purposely disconnect from habitual responses which hold you back!

1. Your mind-brain relationship holds the key to your happiness.

Our nervous system, with our brain as the master conductor, is the main hub of external information processing. Our mind regulates energy and information flow, but essentially, “where our mind goes, energy flows.” What we routinely focus on will determine if we are more or less happy. Neurobiology teaches us that the attention of our mind induces connections between our brain’s 100 billion cells to create pathways. The more we use a certain pathway, the more it becomes “the norm.” For example, if you routinely focus on what you are grateful for, you induce nerve cells to connect (known as synapse) and reinforce an automatic response of gratitude. Gratitude and meditation practices also release neurotransmitters in the brain that activate our feel good reward center. This brings me to the next point—why we focus so much more on the negative aspects of life than on the positive.

2. Your brain is not that good at being happy naturally.

As a matter of survival during harsh conditions over a period of 600 million years, our brains evolved with the tendency to assume the worst, which results in a whole lot of unnecessary worry, anxiety, and fear. Studies actually show that chronic stress changes the brain in ways that reinforce its negative bias. For example, the constant release of cortisol as a result of long-term exposure to stress causes shrinkage to both the executive functioning part of our brain, our prefrontal cortex, as well as to our hippocampus, which is involved with creating new memories. This could be a great contributor to perpetuating our slip-ups. Luckily, we can provide a counter to this effect. By our mindful attention to looking at the positive things in our life, we can grow our left prefrontal cortex, which will increase our capacity to control negative emotions.

  1. When we let our brain’s pessimism run our life, we are temporarily impaired.

Because of the tremendous amount of resources required for the operation of our amazing body and mind, our brain will shut down essential functions and structures when our mind sends the message to our brain that a situation is threatening. It does not matter if the threat is perceived, like the fear of rejection or shame, or if it is imminent, like a cougar racing toward us. The bottom line is that when we operate from our stress response, we are temporarily cognitively, perceptually, and emotionally-impaired, which puts us on a sure path to slipping and not doing what we intended to do initially.

4. Most of our responses are automatic and happen without our permission.

Our nervous system’s main job is to keep us safe from threats in the environment. For energy conservation, the assessment of the potential danger or threat posed by any experience is automated at the level of the nervous system. So as much as we pride ourselves on our high IQ or our Ivy League education, the truth is that most of the time the way we respond to what is happening happens without our permission. Consider that your brain, although it makes up a mere 2% of your body mass, uses 20% of your body’s oxygen and calories. And still, out of eleven million bits of information per second that reach our brain for processing, our conscious mind can process less than fifty. Therefore, “procedural memory” is driving our actions and our behavior. Procedural memory, a subset of implicit memory, means our reactions are automated based on experiences we had in the past, even when we do not remember what those specific experiences are.

If you are curious as to how much data our brain can store, are you ready for this? The human brain’s memory capacity is up to 1,000 terabytes! Just to put this in perspective, the nineteen million volumes in the US Library of Congress represent only about ten terabytes of data.

5. The thoughts and attention of our mind determine how we experience our reality.

How we have labeled a situation produces chemical and electrical activity that either activates our reward center, resulting in pleasure, or elicits our stress response, resulting in pain. For example, any addiction, whether to a chemical substance, food, or action is a behavior that we choose unconsciously to calm down internal dysregulation by inducing the release of feel good hormones. Our brain will respond to vicious cycles of being exposed to too much stress by turning us to anything that has helped us feel good in the past, so it can balance the discomfort between rewards and environmental demands. So if, for example, in the past when you got anxious, you turned to a muffin for relief and did this unknowingly several times, you have trained your brain to release the feel good hormone dopamine by turning to “hyper-palatable” foods. That means that in the face of a stressor, your brain will release insulin that will make that muffin irresistible. But every time you choose to challenge this old negative pattern and resist that muffin, you are making a breakthrough. You are training your brain to sculpt new pathways that will lead you to a happier, healthier, and more beautiful reality.

We make so many choices on any given day. Many drive us to a positive outcome, and many sabotage our efforts and cause us to behave against our wishes and best judgment. It is part of our human nature to slip up and not do what we are supposed to do at times. But we do have the power to change that.

The biggest gift given to us by mind-blowing neuroscience research is that we can use simple, mundane, everyday experiences to re-sculpt our brain.

Regardless of how many times we have slipped up in the past, we have the power to create a happier and calmer brain and life.

Join me next week for the second part of this blog, “Why Don’t We Do What We Are Supposed to Do?” that will arm you with science-based solutions on what you can do about this common human challenge.

An Overlooked yet Powerful Antidote to Stress: Compassion!

We spend so much time and money trying to figure out how to neutralize the negative impact of stress on our busy, information-overloaded lives! Yet one of the simplest, and also ultra-effective, solutions flies right under our radar: Compassion!

Compassion is our response and action towards relieving another’s suffering.

Study after study provides compelling evidence that when we approach life from a compassionate and altruistic place, we are much healthier, happier and live longer.

I have noticed that every time my life gets challenging, something pulls me toward volunteering in my community, which every time has proven to be a profound contributor to my level of happiness and ability to stay “in my zen.”

I recently was sworn in as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for abused children in my community. Despite the pressures and demands of being a single mother entrepreneur, making the time to volunteer has significantly enhanced my resilience and has added so much positive energy to my life. Regardless of my time limitations, I know that by being a child’s advocate, my CASA child is:

  • half as likely to spend time in long-term foster care,
  • four times less likely to re-enter the child welfare system, and
  • able to receive more court-ordered services, such as therapy and educational assistance.

I want to tell you why you should consider giving back and why it is one of the most effective strategies against stress.

  1. Voluntary work is a great way to make new, meaningful friendships.

Despite the ease by which we are able to find and connect to our elementary school friends over Facebook, today one in four of us do not have a person in whom we can confide. We are most probably living in the midst of the worst loneliness crisis in the history of our species. Offering as little as one of your 168 hours in any given week to serve as a volunteer gives you access to an incredible pool of people who happen to be just as wonderful as you and just as passionate about the cause you are passionate about—so much so, that they are also working on it for free.

  1. Volunteering is good for your health.

Study after study consistently reflect that compassion, altruism and kindness have a profound impact in your health and wellbeing. In fact a study by the United Health Group and the Optum Institute found that volunteering has a significant positive impact on our physical, emotional, and psychological health. Out of the study participants, 78% of the ones who had volunteered over the prior twelve months reported lower stress levels and 94% reported improved mood.

  1. Volunteering is an amazing way to enhance your skills for free.

We never stop growing and evolving until our very last breath. Commitment to continuing education is always the best investment of our resources. But have you considered that you can receive free training in invaluable skills at the same time as you are improving the odds for a happy and successful life for a fellow human being? The incredible training offered by the CASA advocates of my county enhanced my knowledge of human development, the needs of my community, and the court system. If there is a cause that is near and dear to your heart, giving back to that cause can significantly enhance your skill set and your abilities.

  1. Volunteering is a “career-enhancing” move.

When employers are considering the career advancement of their employees, community involvement and volunteering have always topped the charts in reflecting personal character and ethos. From the opportunity to collaborate and foster teamwork to having statistics that show the benefits and the direct impact of your efforts, volunteer participation can absolutely enrich your resume and boost your ranking when compared to other candidates being considered for a promotion. I will never forget the incredible sense of pride I experienced being part of reducing the HIV infection rate in East Yorkshire, England as part of my voluntary youth outreach work. And trust me, employers noticed it too.

  1. By volunteering you can really make a difference.

Whether you are helping raise funds for the underserved, providing community education, or helping a child learn better coping mechanisms to deal with adversity, it feels amazing to know you are making a difference by positively impacting someone else’s life. Studies have found that one of the most critical components in restoring work-life balance hinges on how we feel about the work that we do, rather than on the number of hours we spend working. The experience of positively impacting the life of another through the humble contribution of your time and skills carries incredible power.

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with adventure—overcoming adversities and succeeding in three different countries, excelling academically, and meeting and exceeding most of my professional goals.

Yet, my lengthy tenure as a volunteer for AIDS Action (UK), my service on the Council for Drug Problems, and, most recently, my involvement with the court-appointed special advocate (CASA) program in my county top the chart in terms of my sense of accomplishment, joy, and life satisfaction.

While we struggle to keep up with the demands placed upon us and look for ways to reset and restore our precious body system balance, giving back is often the last activity we would consider as an avenue for increased well-being.

We turn to many other strategies to manage stress at the end of the day. We may drink a glass of wine, watch television, or take a sleeping aid.

But why not try out volunteering?

I am not sure of where you are in life or the challenges you may be facing. But I can guarantee you that by volunteering you will form friendships that will last a lifetime, garner incredible new skills, and know that you are actually making a difference in building community wellness. Volunteering is one of the most robust ways to not only get the maximum return on your investment, but to actually improve your own well-being and be the change you want to see in this world.

Why your brain is a Pessimist

Negative Bias

brainDo you sometimes wonder why out of all the things that happen on any given day we tend to fixate on the negative ones, like a negative remark from our boss? If you get frustrated by your negative tendencies and are secretly jealous of the positive people in the world who seem to always be able to make lemonade out of lemons, do not despair. For our survival, our brain has indeed evolved with a negative default position, called the “Negative Bias.” However, once we understand the inner workings and reasons for our brain’s negative bias, we can work with our brain and harness its power to intercept the unnecessary fear, worry, and anxiety that the negative bias causes and improve our personal and professional life experiences.

What is Negative Bias?

Negative bias is simply a term describing our brain’s tendency to over-estimate threats and under-estimate rewards as a byproduct of our nervous system’s evolution to aid our survival. Our brain’s primary job is to scan the environment for threats and orchestrate our body’s response to do what it has to do to keep us alive. If you can, imagine taking a walk on a nature trail and hearing a rattling sound along your path. Within milliseconds your brain will get notified through your sense of hearing, and immediately check in for any past associations of that sound with a threat. If it finds one, it will then trigger your amygdala (your brain’s fear circuitry), which will in term elicit your stress response to re-direct your energy from essential functions to your large muscle groups so that you can flee from the “imminent threat” ahead. The end result is that your brain’s inner workings will make you run away from where you heard the rattling sound. If our brains were not so effective in responding to signals picked up from the environment, you and I would just keep walking toward the direction of the rattling sound and probably get bitten by a rattlesnake.

Now multiply this experience by 600 million years, during times in the history of our species when the conditions were harsh, and perhaps you can appreciate why our brain is such a pessimist. We did not inherit the genes of ancestors who were enjoying a moment to smell the flowers: Those ancestors got devoured by predators!

The problem with our brain’s negative bias

Once upon a time, our environment presented many threats to our survival. However, that is not the case today. The trouble with our brain’s “stone age” evolutionary propensity to tilt to the negative way of looking at things, inadvertently leads to an activation of our fight or flight response more times than what we are physiologically designed to handle. In fact, we know that when we operate under our stress-response-activation, essential functions, like our immune function, malfunction. We become temporarily compromised—physically, emotionally, perceptually, and cognitively.

We definitely need our brain to continue to assume the worst when we hear suspicious sounds while hiking in Yosemite National Forest. On the other hand, there are things we can incorporate into our day-to-day life to train our brain to become better at focusing on positive experiences to correct for the perceived threat false alarms.

The key to building a happier brain, and thus a happier life, is to give our brain experiences that will help it bounce back from an alarmed state to a calm state, where we regain access to the optimal functioning of our body systems and the executive functioning part of our brain. This executive part of our brain is involved with memory, learning, mediation of rewards, motivation, problem-solving and many more fabulous jobs.

We can build resilience and intercept unnecessary anger, worry, fear, and anxiety so we can return to the optimal state of calmness, joy, and peak performance.

Here are some simple things you can start doing every day to cultivate and grow your brain’s ability to collaborate with you to create the life experience you want.

1. Practice mindfulness meditation.

Far from a mystical practice, all that is required to reap the benefits of one of the best antidotes to negativity is to observe your thoughts and simply recognize worries, anxieties, and fears that are not happening right now and return to your breath.

2. Spend more time with people who nourish and support you and less time with people who are indifferent or negative towards you.

Although indifferent and negative people have their role to play in our lives too, don’t forget the power a parachute gives us when jumping off a plane. We need people who support our cause to weather the storms of life.

 3. When things get tough, return your attention to your Breath.

Remember that your breath is the only bodily function that involves both involuntary and voluntary muscles and nerves. By paying attention to your breath and minding its depth and regularity, you can impact your heart rate and calm yourself down.

 4. Instead of waiting, proactively ask for feedback.

Why wait for someone to express what we could have done better? Why not ask what it is that we should start, stop, or continue doing today?

 5. Be kind to others.

Love and kindness spread in ripples and they have superpowers in diminishing threat-related responses of our evolved nervous system. Being love is the best way to experience love.

 6. Be kind to yourself.

Not just in words, but in actions, forgive yourself for past mistakes, eliminate negative self-talk, and stand up for yourself when anyone treats you in an unkind way.

7. Make time to do things that nourish your spirit and make you come alive.

Walk in nature, paint, sing, dance, make love, take a break, plant an herb garden, volunteer, or do whatever makes you smile. I know time is a limited commodity. But our actions in every minute of every day are what birth our reality, our work, and our relationships.

Final thoughts

Throughout our life’s journey, we are guaranteed to face a mix of situations, some of which will be positive and some of which will be negative. Although we have adopted this notion that someday “everything in our life will fall into place” and we will then be able to finally enjoy the moment, we all need to remember: that moment is here now.

By deepening our awareness of our incredible brain’s inner workings and its built-in negativity bias, we can enhance our capacity to deal better with life’s challenges. Since we cannot prevent things from going wrong, what we can do instead is to put systems in place and incorporate tools, resources, and practices to control how adverse events impact us. Understanding the basis and the reasons behind our negative bias gives us the opportunity to use everyday experiences as a catalyst to retrain our brain to collaborate with us to change our life for the better. By purposefully incorporating practices that allow our nervous system to quickly return to baseline no matter what happens on the outside that causes it to get hi-jacked through our brain’s tendency to assume the worst, we are actually retraining our brain to be happier.

Because after all, how we handle negative situations whether they are perceived or real threats is one of our most profound opportunities to not just learn who we truly are at our core, but also who we can potentially be.

For regular inspiration, awareness, and practices that can teach you how to stay calm and balanced for the greatest health, happiness, and effectiveness regardless of your life situations, I invite you to join my community. http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen. I would be honored to be your guide in re-acquainting you with your best self and helping you go from where you are to where you want to be.