Humans are responsible for making countless decision every day. Even when having a particularly bad day we are still required to get up and make choices. Unfortunately, our ability to make good decisions can be hijacked when we experience stress. The cause of this disruption exists in a small region of the brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala resides in the hind brain and is responsible for our emotional processing. The amygdala doesn’t simply process emotion but prioritizes which is the most significant emotion on which to focus. When anxiety and fear are present that is what the amygdala focuses on processing. The impact – fast processing of information is eroded. When our brain is busy managing stress it is not able to process other relevant information.
The brain is exceedingly interconnected; activating one region can affect the operation of another. When the amygdala is in overdrive and preoccupied it can affect the function of our executive region. The executive areas of the brain are responsible for among other things, short-term memory and our ability to calculate the risks and benefits of a decision.
So how can we stop our unconscious brain from taking our conscious brain hostage? This is a particularly tricky question because we might not even be aware the crime is happening. One simple way to stop your mind from dwelling on the negative is to intentionally focus on the positive. In his book, Flourish: Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Martin Seligman describes an activity called the “what went well” exercise. Take 10 minutes at the end of every day and write three things that went well and why they went well. Write every day for a month and then take some time to review what you’ve written. This process has multiple benefits:
- · It gives your amygdala a break by intentionally focusing on the positive.
- · Reviewing your daily notes is a way to discover patterns of behavior that have allowed you to be successful in your day to day life.
- · Repeated over time, it can increase your happiness and reduce feelings of depression.
At first, writing about ‘what went well’ might seem awkward but given some time it will become second nature. So, silence that inner cynic and give it try.