The science of optimism and resilience – retrain your brain

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Resilience: how to bounce back from setbacks

Some people seem to deal with whatever is thrown at them. Deadlines, back-to-back meetings, long hours, presentations, staff issues, family, etc, etc. They take it all in their stride.

Traditional thinking leads us to believe these lucky people are born with a natural ability to deal with stress – while the rest of us struggle to cope with life’s constant demands. For some, stress is just too overwhelming.

However, neuroscience shows us that learning to handle stress and develop an optimistic outlook is within everyone’s grasp because we all have the power to literally re-wire our brain.

The science of optimism and how it affects you

Just as the brain enables us to learn a musical instrument or a new sport, it can also become hardwired to respond automatically to negative stimuli. This unconsciously learnt thought process keeps us stuck in problem-mode and stops us even noticing possible solutions – the glass is always half empty.

Left to its own devices, our brain will focus on the negative. The brain’s threat detection centre is the amygdala. This evolutionary survival mechanism keeps us continually alert to potential danger. Unfortunately the result is that many of us carry a level of background anxiety and are permanently looking for things that could go wrong.

The destructive power of pessimism…

The results of stress and a pessimistic outlook on the human body are well documented. Impaired immunity, increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases; prolonged stress literally kills brain cells. Stress also impacts our professional and personal relationships and overall quality of life.

So how can we combat this?

One effective solution, offered by Shawn Achor, is ‘Three Good Things’: My phone alarm goes off at 7:15pm every evening and this is my cue to remember three good things that happened during the day. This habit trains my brain to scan for good news, rather than threats. If my family are present, we take turns at the dinner table to recite three good things. In a similar vein, at work, we start every team meeting asking each person for one piece of good news. Creating this cycle of positivity really does shift the mood, and gets the meeting off to a great start.

The reason employees often complain about feeling criticised is because their manager is unconsciously scanning for threats, looking for deficiencies and perceived shortcomings, instead of praising good work. My phone alarm comes in handy here as well – at 12pm everyday it tells me to ‘compliment someone’. Again, this creates a new habit, making not only the other person happy, but also creating positivity in me.

Being positive will strengthen your resilience to setbacks and enable you to achieve where others struggle. The good news is that it is entirely possible to switch your mindset – even if you’re currently buried deep-within negativity.

Change your mindset

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