The Resilient Lawyer – Positivity Does the Brain Good

I want to revisit an article that I published last October where I described the benefits that being positive can have on our resilience.  It seems particularly apropos to spend more time on this subject, given the current prolonged lockdown, when positivity levels are probably reaching an all-time low.

I recently started reading a book called “Biohack Your Brain:  How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power,” by Kristen Willeumier, PH. D., a neuroscientist.*  In her book, Willeumier notes that we think anywhere between 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day.  Of those thoughts, she states that up to 90% are repetitive and up to 80% are negative.  I don’t know about the exact math, but what this means is that most of our day is spent repeatedly beating ourselves up mentally.   Astounding, right?  And probably all too relatable by too many readers.

How do negative repetitive thoughts affect our brain and how do they impact our resilience?  According to Willeumier, “In the brain negative thoughts increase stress, boosting cortisol and internal inflammation.  Overtime, this uptick in stress hormones and inflammation produced can damage the hippocampus, impacting our ability to think, recall information, solve problems, be creative, and mentally perform at our best.”  If that’s not enough, she also states that negativity “…lowers activity in the cerebellum, which helps control thinking and motor skills, and the temporal lobes, which can lead to memory issues, impulse-control problems, and mood disorders.”  But wait, there’s more.  As Willeumier notes, “…negative thinking over-activates the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, creating dark emotions and causing us to store present experiences as bad memories.”  Suffice it to say then that negative thinking can have an enormous impact on our resilience.

The good news though (or the positive news), is that “Thinking good thoughts cuts stress, increases cognitive function, and improves mood – in other words, optimism makes you smarter, happier, and healthier.”  How do positive thoughts help?  According to Willeumier, “In the brain, positive thoughts lower cortisol and inflammation, and increase feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that stimulate feelings of calm, focus, and relaxation.  Positivity also activates both the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulation thoughts and emotions, and the hippocampus, which increases cognition and learning.”  Positive thoughts also “…. help us make better decisions and find solutions to problems.”  Sounds to me like positivity is a magical resilience tonic.  

So now that we know the benefits of being positive, how can we incorporate a positivity practice into our daily lives?  Here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Adopt a daily gratitude practice.  I find it a great way to start my day so, before I get up, I think of 3 things that I am grateful for.  This way, by the time my feet hit the ground, I’m already feeling good about my life. 
  • Stop the routine negative talk.  We routinely talk about things like the weather in a negative way.  Next time it snows, instead of commenting how terrible it is, comment on how it allows you to hit the ski hills with family and friends or go tobogganing with your children.  You’ll see that letting go of negativity in one form will help you let go of it in others. 
  • Avoid office gossip.  It’s always negative and never leads anywhere good.
  • Limit your news consumption.  News is mostly negative.  I used to read it first thing in the morning and it would immediately put me in a negative mood.  So, I don’t look at the news until I have completed my morning routine consisting of meditation and exercise.  I also consume just enough to keep me informed of what’s going on the world, but not so much that it consumes me. 
  • Start your day off by setting an intention to be positive.  You’ll notice that you put in a greater effort to be positive once you’ve made an active choice to try.  It’s kind of like when you decide you want to buy a particular type of car and then you start noticing that car on the road all the time.  If it’s on your mind, your subconscious will look for little things to give you boosts during the day.

*Note:  all references in this article to Willieumier’s book are taken from pages 167-169.