How well does your brain handle emotions?
How do you react when your flight gets cancelled, when your boss chews you out for missing a deadline, or when you find out your ex is dating someone else? Do you lash out in anger, curl up into a fetal position, or take it in stride?
That depends on your own unique emotional style, a fingerprint or pattern of specific brain activity that determines how you feel and respond to life-altering events and inconsequential ones, too, such as a compliment on your looks or persistent honking from an impatient driver. While no single emotional style stands out as the ideal -- the Dalai Lama’s perhaps? -- you can refine how you feel and react if you think your style needs tweaking, according to a new book called the Emotional Life of Your Brain.
“Most people have a sense whether something is a real problem for them or not, when they really start to examine how they behave,” author Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an interview. While you may have a genetic propensity to exhibit road rage or a pessimistic outlook on life, you can also take advantage of new research suggesting that the brain has a certain amount of plasticity and can be trained to perceive things differently.
“That’s the hopeful message that’s in the book,” Davidson said. “If your emotional style is problematic, you can do things to change it.”
The book is filled with a variety of mental exercises that he says you can do to help strengthen certain neural connections in the brain associated with specific attributes you would like to adopt, whether it’s more optimism, better resilience to stress, or a strong sensitivity to context, meaning you display the proper level of emotion given the situation at hand. That’s, at least, the theory since the scientific evidence is still in the early stages.
“Just like we didn’t know about the importance of physical exercise until 50 years ago, I think mental exercise is on the verge of taking on the same kind of importance,” Davidson said.
Here’s what he recommends for shifting to a different emotional style.
1. If you’d like to shift from a pessimistic outlook to a more positive one, you need to strengthen connections between the brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, and the ventral striatum, which senses pleasure and reward. Research suggests that “well-being therapy” can help sustain positive emotions. This includes writing down one positive characteristic of yourself and one positive characteristic of someone you regularly interact with, writing down a different trait each time. Also try expressing gratitude regularly by saying thank you more often, and taking the time to compliment others.
2. If you want to become more resilient to stress -- bouncing back quickly from life’s misfortunes -- you need to strengthen connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, a region of the brain that processes emotions. Practicing 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation, where you train your mind to focus on the present moment, can help build resilience by teaching you to let go of anxiety-provoking thoughts. To practice mindfulness, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe naturally for 10 minutes, focusing on the breath as it enters and exits your lungs. When thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge them and let them pass without judging yourself.
“This can be done in context of everyday life, practiced for a minute or two while sitting at your desk or in the subway,” said Davidson. “You’re intentionally taking responsibility for your own mind and cultivating change.”
3. If the amount of anxiety you feel when the dry cleaner stains your favorite shirt is akin to what you’d feel if you were on a hijacked plane, you’ll probably want to adjust your sensitivity to context. Those with this problem are at higher risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Davidson. A solution is to strengthen connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory forming, by practicing relaxation techniques like slow deep breathing -- long inhales and exhales of the same length -- and specific “context training” exercises.
Davidson recommends identifying certain situations or people that make you unjustifiably anxious. If your college professor, say, is the source of your dread, make a list of specific cues or behaviors that upset you when you’re sitting in class. When you get home, bring to mind these images while engaging in slow breathing. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable and relaxed despite seeing your professor’s frowning face looking down at you.
Deborah Kotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.