No matter how things may appear, the world is not all gloom and doom. There are awful things going on around us, of course. GMO food is a reality, and our voices really were ignored when we protested. Big Insurance really is reaching deep into our pockets for every last penny. Big Pharma really does have its tentacles stuck deep in the heart of government. None of this is our imaginations—we really are in the middle of a battle both for our health and our rights.
BUT—and this is sometimes hard to remember—even in the midst of a battle there are islands of calm, instances of kindness, bright shining moments that make it possible to keep on going even when things seem their worst. When bombs are falling all around you, you have three choices: you can panic and run screaming right into the line of fire. You can huddle in your foxhole and pray that none of them hit you. Or you can grab whatever you have on hand and build a better bomb shelter.
I think that’s where we’re at right now.
Sometimes you just have to focus on the things that you have some control over—take a deep breath, look for the bit of light in the darkness, and hold onto that.
Now, you may be wondering just what this has to do with your brain or even with your health in general. I’m talking about battles, and bomb shelters, and looking for light in the dark—that’s not my usual style and you might wonder if you’re reading the wrong newsletter.
You’re not. What I want to talk about today is positive thinking.
It’s always darkest before dawn—so light a candle
We’ve all heard the old saw about it always being darkest before the dawn. That may or may not be true. I don’t know. What I do know is this:
No matter how dark it is, you can always light a candle. And when you light enough of them, they make a nice warm glow no matter how dark it is and no matter how far away dawn may be.
That’s the power of positivity.
And it’s a choice.
With every single thing that happens in our lives, whether big or small, life-changing or seemingly unimportant, we’re faced with a choice: look at it in a negative light, or in a positive one.
Most of us walk a middle path somewhere between the two. Some situations, like the birth of a child or a marriage, are almost completely positive. And some, like a serious illness or a death, seem indisputably negative. But even in the bleakest of situations there’s often some small speck of brightness. You may not see it unless you’re earnestly searching for it. But learning to see and to focus on those bright spots—whether as big as the sun or as small as a spark—can change your life in ways you’d never imagine.
Positive thinking does more than make you happier
Now, before I go any further, I want to share some facts you might not be aware of. We’ve heard “the power of positive thinking” around so much that you might not realize just what kind of power positive thoughts really can have. So here’s what you should know:
- Positive thinking physically changes your brain. One single positive thought won’t do it, but making a habit of looking on the bright side will. Positive thinking stimulates your brain to grow new neurons. And it can make existing neurons change their connections—essentially “re-mapping” part of your brain’s circuitry in a more positive way.
- Just thinking about something makes your brain produce neurotransmitters. Thinking positive thoughts releases “feel-good” brain chemicals. And these don’t just make you feel good. They affect your health.
- A positive outlook makes you less likely to get sick—and improves your prognosis if you do.
- Your emotional state and your stress level even affect your genes. Nothing can change the genes you’re born with, but these factors can affect whether certain genes are “switched on” or “switched off.” So your life experiences and how you react to them—either in a positive or negative way—can affect your very DNA.
And one last thing: being positive—or negative—primes your body and brain to prepare for more of the same, on a physiological level. Positivity breeds more positivity.
The darker it is, the more candles you need to light
Now you may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but X terrible thing is happening in my life right now. How am I supposed to be positive about that?” So I want to be clear: I’m not talking about “faking it til you make it.” I’m not talking about ignoring things that are going on in your life, or pretending things are fine when they aren’t. That isn’t being positive. It’s simply avoidance.
No. I’m talking about looking for something positive even while you acknowledge the situation. Let’s say you crashed your car and your insurance won’t pay for it. Do you need to figure out a way to pay for it yourself? Of course. But is there a positive thing you can hold onto too? Probably. It might be “But at least I didn’t get badly hurt.” Or it might just be, “Well, at least I can take the bus till I get it fixed.” Looking for the bright spot in the gloom isn’t avoidance, it’s a tool for helping cope with the situation.
Sometimes that spark of positivity is no bigger than a pinprick—and that’s when you have to light candles in the darkness. It might mean going over all the good things in your life and being grateful for them even in the present situation. It might mean reminding yourself of the love and support of family members. Or it might be something entirely different—only you know where you keep your candles stored.
Thankfully, most of our lives aren’t filled with such desperate situations. For the most part, all that’s required is a slight shift in attitude. Instead of thinking, “Ugh, I have to go to work,” tell yourself “I get to go to work.” With one word, you changed a negative into a positive.
Don’t sigh and think, “I have to cook dinner now but I’m tired.” Instead tell yourself, “I’m tired, but I’m lucky enough to be able to cook dinner for my family myself, and control what we eat.”
It may sound cheesy, but small changes like this can have a huge impact on your life. So try it for a week. Make a real effort, whenever you have a negative thought, to turn it into a positive one. And when the week is up, see how different you feel and how much easier it is to look on the bright side even when things are cloudy.