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Taming the mammoth: Stop caring what other people think

Taming the mammoth: Stop caring what other people think | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

Part 2: Taming the Mammoth
 
Some people are born with a reasonably tame mammoth or raised with parenting that helps keep the mammoth in check. Others die without ever reining their mammoth in at all, spending their whole lives at its whim. Most of us are somewhere in the middle—we’ve got control of our mammoth in certain areas of our lives while it wreaks havoc in others. Being run by your mammoth doesn’t make you a bad or weak person—it just means you haven’t yet figured out how to get a grip on it. You might not even be aware that you have a mammoth at all or of the extent to which your Authentic Voice has been silenced.

Whatever your situation, there are three steps to getting your mammoth under your control:

Step 1: Examine Yourself

The first step to improving things is a clear and honest assessment of what’s going on in your head, and there are three parts of this:

1) Get to know your Authentic Voice

This doesn’t sound that hard, but it is. It takes some serious reflection to sift through the webs of other people’s thoughts and opinions and figure out who the real you actually is. You spend time with a lot of people—which of them do you actually like the most? How do you spend your leisure time, and do you truly enjoy all parts of it? Is there anything you regularly spend money on that you don’t feel that comfortable with? How does your gut really feel about your job and relationship status? What’s your true political opinion? Do you even care? Do you pretend to care about things you don’t just to have an opinion? Do you secretly have an opinion on a political or moral issue you don’t ever voice because people you know will be outraged?

There are cliché phrases for this process—”soul-searching” or “finding yourself”—but that’s exactly what needs to happen. Maybe you can reflect on this from whatever chair you’re sitting in right now or from some other part of your normal life—or maybe you need to go somewhere far away, by yourself, and step out of your life in order to effectively examine it. Either way, you’ve got to figure out what actually matters to you and start being proud of whoever your Authentic Voice is.

2) Figure out where the mammoth is hiding
 
Most of the time a mammoth is in control of a person, the person’s not really aware of it. But you can’t make progress if you’re not crystal clear about where the biggest problem areas are.

The most obvious way to find the mammoth is to figure out where your fear is—where are you most susceptible to shame or embarrassment? What parts of your life do you think about and a dreadful, sinking feeling washes over you? Where does the prospect of failure seem like a nightmare? What are you too timid to publicly try even though you know you’re good at it? If you were giving advice to yourself, which parts of your life would clearly need a change that you’re avoiding acting on right now?

The second place a mammoth hides is in the way-too-good feelings you get from feeling accepted or on a pedestal over other people. Are you a serious pleaser at work or in your relationship? Are you terrified of disappointing your parents and do you choose making them proud over aiming to gratify yourself? Do you get too excited about being associated with prestigious things or care too much about status? Do you brag more than you should?

A third area the mammoth is present is anywhere you don’t feel comfortable making a decision without “permission” or approval from others. Do you have opinions you’re regurgitating from someone else’s mouth, which you’re comfortable having now that you know that person has them? When you introduce your new girlfriend or boyfriend to your friends or family for the first time, can those people’s reaction to your new person fundamentally change your feelings for him/her? Is there a Puppet Master in your life? If so, who, and why?

3) Decide where the mammoth needs to be ousted
 
It’s not realistic to kick the mammoth entirely out of your head—you’re a human and humans have mammoths in their head, period. The thing we all need to do is carve out certain sacred areas of our lives that must be in the hands of the AV and free of mammoth influence. There are obvious areas that need to be made part of the AV’s domain like your choice of life partner, your career path, and the way you raise your kids. Others are personal—it comes down to the question, “In which parts of your life must you be entirely true to yourself?”

Step 2: Gather Courage by Internalizing that the Mammoth Has a Low IQ

Real Woolly Mammoths were unimpressive enough to go extinct, and Social Survival Mammoths aren’t any better. Despite the fact that they haunt us so, our mammoths are dumb, primitive creatures who have no understanding of the modern world. Deeply understanding this—and internalizing it—is a key step to taming yours. There are two major reasons not to take your mammoth seriously:

1) The mammoth’s fears are totally irrational.

5 things the Mammoth is incorrect about:

→ Everyone is talking about me and my life and just think how much everyone will be talking about it if I do this risky or weird thing.

Here’s how things actually are:

No one really cares that much about what you’re doing. People are highly self-absorbed.

→ If I try really hard, I can please everyone.

Yes, maybe in a 40-person tribe with a unified culture. But in today’s world, no matter who you are, a bunch of people will like you and a bunch of other people won’t. Being approved of by one type of person means turning another off. So obsessing over fitting in with any one group is illogical, especially if that group isn’t really who you are. You’ll do all that work, and meanwhile, your actual favorite people are off being friends with each other somewhere else.

→ Being disapproved of or looked down upon or shit-talked about has real consequences in my life.

Anyone who disapproves of who you’re being or what you’re doing isn’t even in the same room with you 99.7% of the time. It’s a classic mammoth mistake to fabricate a vision of future social consequences that is way worse than what actually ends up happening—which is usually nothing at all.

→ Really judgy people matter.

Here’s how judgy people function: They’re highly mammoth-controlled and become good friends with and date other judgy people who are also highly mammoth-controlled. One of the primary activities they do together is talk shit about whoever’s not with them—maybe they feel some jealousy, and eye-rolling disapproval helps them flip the script and feel less jealous, or maybe they’re not jealous and use someone as a vehicle for bathing in schadenfreude—but whatever the underlying feeling, the judging serves to feed their hungry mammoth.
 
When people shit-talk, they set up a category division of which they’re always on the right side. They do this to prop themselves up on a pedestal that their mammoth can chomp away on.

Being the material a judgy person uses to feel good about themselves is a fairly infuriating thought—but it has no actual consequences and it’s clearly all much more about the judgy person and their mammoth problem than it is about you. If you find yourself making decisions partially based on not being talked badly about by a judgy person, think hard about what’s actually going on and stop.

→ I’m a bad person if I disappoint or offend the person/people who love me and have invested so much in me.

No. You’re not a bad person for being whoever your Authentic Voice is in your one life. This is one of those simple things—if they truly selflessly love you, they will for sure come around and accept everything once they see that you’re happy. If you’re happy and they still don’t come around, here’s what’s happening: their strong feelings about who you should be or what you should do are their mammoth talking, and their main motivation is worrying about how it’ll “look” to other people who know them. They’re allowing their mammoth to override their love for you, and they should be adamantly ignored.

Two other reasons why the mammoth’s fearful obsession with social approval makes no sense:

A) You live here:
 
So who gives a fuck about anything?

B) You and everyone you know are going to die. Kind of soon.
 
So like…

The mammoth’s fears being irrational is one reason the mammoth has a low IQ. Here’s the second:

2) The mammoth’s efforts are counterproductive.

The irony of the whole thing is that the obsessive lumbering mammoth isn’t even good at his job. His methods of winning approval may have been effective in simpler times, but today, they’re transparent and off-putting. The modern world is an AV’s world, and if the mammoth wants to thrive socially, he should do the thing that scares him most—let the AV take over.

Here’s why:

AVs are interesting. Mammoths are boring. Every AV is unique and complex, which is inherently interesting. Mammoths are all the same—they copy and conform, and their motives aren’t based on anything authentic or real, just on doing what they think they’re supposed to do. That’s supremely boring.

AVs lead. Mammoths follow. Leadership is natural for most AVs, because they draw their thoughts and opinions from an original place, which gives them an original angle. And if they’re smart and innovative enough, they can change things in the world and invent things that disrupt the status quo. If you give someone a paintbrush and an empty canvas, they might not paint something good—but they’ll change the canvas in one way or another.

Mammoths, on the other hand, follow—by definition. That’s what they were built to do—blend in and follow the leader. The last thing a mammoth is going to do is change the status quo because it’s trying so hard to be the status quo. When you give someone a paintbrush and canvas, but the paint is the same exact color as the canvas, they can paint all they want, but they won’t change anything.

People gravitate toward AVs, not mammoths. The only time a mammoth-crazed person is appealing on a first date is when they’re on the date with another mammoth-crazed person. People with a strong AV see through mammoth-controlled people and aren’t attracted to them. A friend of mine was dating a great on-paper guy a while back but broke things off because she couldn’t quite fall for him. She tried to articulate why, saying he wasn’t weird or special enough—he seemed like “just one of the guys.” In other words, he was being run too much by a mammoth.

This also holds among friends or colleagues, where AV-run people are more respected and more magnetic—not because there’s necessarily anything extraordinary about them, but because people respect someone with the strength of character to have tamed their mammoth.
 
Step 3: Start Being Yourself

This post was all fun and games until “start being yourself” came into the picture. Up to now, this has been an interesting reflection into why humans care so much what other people think, why that’s bad, how it’s a problem in your life, and why there’s no good reason it should continue to plague you. But actually doing something after you finish reading this article is a whole different thing. That takes more than reflection—it takes some courage.
 
But courage against what, exactly? As we’ve discussed, there’s no actual danger involved in being yourself—more than anything, it just takes an Emperor Has No Clothes epiphany, which is as simple as this:

Almost nothing you’re socially scared of is actually scary.

Absorbing this thought will diminish the fear that you feel, and without fear, the mammoth loses some power.

With a weakened mammoth, it becomes possible to begin standing up for who you are and even making some bold changes—and when you watch those changes turn out well for you with few negative consequences and no regrets, it reinforces the epiphany and an empowered AV becomes a habit. Your mammoth has now lost its ability to pull the strings, and it’s tamed.
 
The mammoth is still with you—it’ll always be with you—but you’ll have an easier time ignoring or overruling it when it speaks up or acts out, because the AV is the alpha dog now. You can start to relish the feeling of being viewed as weird or inappropriate or confusing to people, and society becomes your playground and blank canvas, not something to grovel before and hope for acceptance from.

Making this shift isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s worth obsessing over. Your Authentic Voice has been given one life—and it’s your job to make sure it gets the opportunity to live it.

Vilma Bonilla's insight:

Good post on finding your true self and living your own life free from your "mammoth." Click on the link or image above to view the original post with lots of cute pics. ~ V. B.

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Ivon Prefontaine's curator insight, June 24, 1:11 PM

This would be helpful in classrooms.

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Good reminders

Good reminders | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

Good stuff.

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We have the power to choose

We have the power to choose | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

“Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.” ~Wayne Dyer

When I was twelve years old I got back from a weekend at my aunt’s house with my mom. We came home to find my father dead in bed. I remember my mom’s screams causing many of our neighbors to come over to see what had happened.

The experience shut me down. I don’t know how else to put it. My father was young: fifty-three years old. It was a huge shock to everyone.

Apparently, he was too proud to get a pacemaker. He died of a heart attack.

My oldest sister was on her honeymoon. She had just gotten married a week before. My other sister was away at college. When they came home they were hysterical, just like my mom and the rest of the family.

I felt like I had to be the strong one because I was the man of the house now. I was very quiet and reserved about the whole thing. This gave the impression that I was handling it well.

Things were not well, though. I never dealt with it in a proper way. I never received therapy or any other kind of help. I buried the experience deep down—so deep that I can barely remember him.

I rarely even spoke about it with anyone. I may have had only a handful of conversations about it by the age of thirty.

I thought I was okay with it, but I was damaged.

I realized somewhere in my late twenties that it affected me. I felt an intense emptiness inside. I’d become sad at times for no reason. I’d feel like crying but couldn’t.

I tended to lean toward the negative. The future always seemed uncertain and scary. I have always thought I would die young. I couldn’t see myself living past the age of forty. It influenced relationships in ways I didn’t realize until recently.

It impacted my ability to express emotions, because I’d decided that being strong meant holding them in. I wouldn’t have been able to write this a year ago.

I managed to make it to the age of twenty-nine without having my heart broken; in fact, I was only five months away from thirty when it happened. It was a traumatic experience for me, probably because it was the first time.

The abandonment aspect was hardest part. I was depressed. I felt certain that something was wrong with me. I blamed myself. I hated myself. My confidence and trust were shaken. I felt abandoned. I thought I would never recover. I felt damaged yet again.

Some time later I reconnected with someone I dated briefly in college. I’d always considered her “the one that got away.” We began dating and things were great for a while. We were in love and best friends. But even though we were really enjoying each other, I was not okay.

I shared more of myself with her than anyone ever before, but I was never truly comfortable. I had confidence, insecurity, and abandonment issues. I was always worried that she would leave me.

I was so afraid that I constantly needed validation. The vulnerability was eating me up inside. I tried to hold on too tight to feel a sense of control. Eventually she felt suffocated and broke up with me.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy really—I lost her because I was afraid I would.

I don’t blame her, though. She is an amazing, beautiful, brilliant woman. It wasn’t a healthy relationship which made things hard on her—I get that. In a way I’m grateful for this. It was a wake-up call.

The break-up hasn’t been easy, but I’ve managed better than I could have ever imagined. I made it a point to try to remain positive, to not let it consume me. I have chosen to view it as a learning experience.

I started writing in a journal every day to get through it and understand myself better. One night I was feeling down, but I wanted to steer my thoughts in a positive direction. I started making a list of things I would learn from the break-up.

They included things like not dwelling on the negative, loving myself, being confident, and being less critical of myself. In the middle of the list I wrote the words:

“I can choose what affects me.”

By the time I finished the list, those words lingered. I repeated them over and over out loud. Every time I said them I felt more powerful. I felt more control over my life. I repeated different variations of the theme:

I can choose what affects me.

I can choose to not be damaged.

I can choose to not be afraid.

I can choose to not let this break-up depress me.

I can choose to look at mistakes as learning experiences.

I can choose to be confident.

I can choose to be happy.

I can choose to feel loved.

I can choose.

Every time I said a phrase, I felt a chill in my body. Tears started flowing, but I wasn’t really crying. It felt like they were escaping; like I was letting go of this deep sadness I’ve carried for so long.

It was an awakening, a healing. It was one of the most significant and amazing experiences in my life.

I wrote the words “I can choose” on my hand as a reminder. They give me the power to take control of my life. Every morning I write them again. Eventually, I won’t need a visual reminder.

Whenever I feel my thoughts become negative, I look at my hand and remember that it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be slaves to our pasts. We don’t have to go through life with emotional scars.

We don’t have to let negative experiences define us.

We all have power over our lives. It may be difficult to see, but it’s always there. We always have a choice.

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Ivon Prefontaine's curator insight, April 21, 8:45 PM

It is hard work, but it is worthwhile.

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15 powerful beliefs that will free you from negativity

15 powerful beliefs that will free you from negativity | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

    There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference.  The little difference is attitude.  The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.
    ―W. Clement Stone

When I was a teenager I was the primary target of an extremely persistent bully at my high school.  One day I came home in tears and wrote this on the whiteboard hanging on my bedroom wall:  “I hate bullies.  They make me feel like a loser.”

The next day, while I was at school, my grandmother erased what I wrote on the whiteboard and replaced it with this:  “An entire body of water the size of the Pacific Ocean can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship.  Similarly, all the negativity in the world can’t bring you down unless you allow it to get inside your head.”

And from that day forward I felt better.  I made a conscious decision to stop letting the bully get inside my head.  I changed my beliefs about his level of importance in my life.

It isn’t easy to remain positive when negativity surrounds you, but remember that you have full control over what you choose to believe.  You can effectively defend yourself against all kinds of negativity by adopting simple, yet powerful, beliefs that support a positive outlook in the face of seemingly negative circumstances.

Below you will find 15 such beliefs that have helped free me from the grips of negativity.  I have these beliefs written down in my journal, and I review them on a regular basis, as needed, just to keep them fresh in my mind.  I hope you will join me by adopting them into your own belief system as well…

    What other people say about me is their problem, not mine. – Don’t take other people’s negativity personally.  Most negative people behave negatively not just to you, but to everyone they interact with.  What they say and do is a projection of their own reality.  Even when a situation seems personal – even if someone insults you directly – it oftentimes has nothing to do with you.  What others say and do, and the opinions they have, are based entirely on their own self-reflection.

    I am free to be ME. – Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?  Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to everyone else and what they want.  Stop living for other people and their opinions.  Be true to yourself.  You are the only person in charge of your life.  The only question is: What do you want to do with the rest of it?

    Life isn’t perfect, but it sure is great. – Our goal shouldn’t be to create a perfect life, but to live an imperfect life in radical amazement.  To get up every morning and take and good look around in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is extraordinary.  Every day is a gift.  Never treat life casually.  To be spiritual in any way is to be amazed in every way.  (Read The Happiness Project.)

    It’s okay to have down days. – Expecting life to be wonderful all the time is wanting to swim in an ocean in which waves only rise up and never come crashing down.  However, when you recognize that the rising and crashing waves are part of the exact same ocean, you are able to let go and be at peace with the reality of these ups and downs.  It becomes clear that life’s ups require life’s downs.

    Even when I’m struggling, I have so much to be grateful for. – What if you awoke today with only the things you were thankful for yesterday?  We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but of appreciating everything we do have.  Stress thrives when your worry list is longer than your gratitude list.  Happiness thrives when your gratitude list is longer than your worry list.  So find something to be thankful for right now.

    Every experience is just another important lesson. – Disappointments and failure are two of the surest stepping-stones to success.  So don’t let a hard lesson harden your heart.  When things go wrong, learn what you can and then push the tragedies and mistakes aside.  Remember, life’s best lessons are often learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes.  We must fail in order to know, and hurt in order to grow.  Good things often fall apart so better things can fall together in their place.

    Not everything is meant to stay. – Change can be terrifying, yet all positive growth and healing requires change.  Sometimes you have to find the good in goodbye.  Because the past is a place of reference, not a place of residence.  Be strong when everything seems to be going wrong, keep taking small steps, and eventually you will find what you’re looking for.  Learn to trust the journey, even when you do not understand it.

    Being wrong is the first step to being right. – Sometimes the wrong choices bring us to the right places.  To be creative and productive in life, you must first lose your fear of being wrong.  And remember, a fear like this can only survive inside you if you let it live there.

    I do not need to hold on to what’s holding me back. – You are not what has happened to you; you are what you choose to become.  It’s time to break the beliefs and routines that have been holding you back.  Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer grows you.  Listen to your intuition, not your ego.  When you stop chasing the wrong beliefs, you give the right ideas a chance to catch you.  

    My happiness today is simply the result of my thinking. – Happiness starts with you – not with your relationships, not with your job, not with your money, but WITH YOU.  It is not always easy to find happiness in ourselves, but it is always impossible to find it elsewhere.  Regardless of the situation you face, your attitude is your choice.  Remember, you can’t have a positive life with a negative attitude.  When negativity controls your thoughts, it limits your behavior, actions, and opportunities.  If you realized how powerful your thoughts were, you would try your best to never think another negative thought again.

    Who I spend quality time with matters. – Surround yourself with people who lift you higher – those who see the great potential in you, even when you don’t see it in yourself.

    Drama and judgments are a waste of perfect happiness. – Make a promise to yourself.  Promise to stop the drama before it begins, to breathe deeply and peacefully, and to love others and yourself without conditions.  Promise to laugh at your own mistakes, and to realize that no one is perfect; we are all human.  Feelings of self-worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible.  (Read The Mastery of Love.)

    Most people are judging me far less than it seems. – The truth is, while you’re busy worrying about what others think of you, they’re busy worrying about what you think of them.  Crazy?  Yes, but true.  The good news is this knowledge instantly frees you to let loose and do more of what YOU want.  And while doing so, you’ll also liberate others to do the same.

    I can make the world a happier place. – Do your best to help one person every day in some small way.  By becoming the answer to someone’s prayer, we often find the answers to our own.  When the people around us are happier, it’s a lot easier to smile.

    The work is worth it. – Lose the expectation that everything in life should be easy.  It rarely is.  In fact, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.  Enjoy the challenge of your achievements.  See the value in your efforts and be patient with yourself.  And realize that patience is not about waiting; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard on your dreams.  It’s knowing deep down that the work is well worth it in the end.

Vilma Bonilla's insight:

Practical tips for productive living. 

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Seven ways to clear your mind of negative thoughts

Seven ways to clear your mind of negative thoughts | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

 

Negative thinking can be a habit of mind.  Thoughts sink in and linger there until you take action to get rid of them.

When you first start thinking negatively, it can be tempting to try and force those thoughts out of your head.  You try as hard as possible to stop thinking about them and push them out.

But this approach often backfires.  Resisting those negative thoughts can actually reinforce that thinking pattern and just make things worse.  The more you try not to think about something, the more you actually end up thinking about it.

To get rid of negative thinking, you need to try a different approach – something that will clear your mind of those negative thoughts once and for all.

Here are seven ways to clear your mind of negative thinking.

1. Change your body language

Take a moment to observe your body language.  Are you slouching with a closed stance?  Are you frowning?

If you are, you’re more likely to think negatively.

Bad body language can lower your self-image and lead to a lack of confidence.  In that emotional state, it’s only natural to start having bad thoughts.

Sit up straight in a confident manner.  Open your stance and smile more.

Fix your body language and you’ll feel a lot better.  It might be just what you need to clear those negative thoughts.

2. Talk it out

Sometimes negative thinking occurs because you have issues or emotions you need to get out.

It’s not good to keep things to yourself.  If you have something that needs to be addressed, you should talk through them with someone.

Putting things into words gives your thoughts shape and form.  That can help you put things into perspective so you can deal with them at the root of the problem.

3. Spend one minute calming your mind of all thought

When your mind is running a mile a minute, it can be hard to keep up.  With everything racing around your head, it can be hard to control the thoughts going on inside – especially the negative ones.

Slow things down.  One minute of calming is often all it takes.

It’s kind of like meditation – you’re emptying your mind.  Think of it as a reboot.  Once it’s empty, you can fill it with something a little more positive.

4. Change the tone of your thoughts

Sometimes negative thinking is the result of poor perspective.  Take a look at the point of view you take on the things going on around you.

For example, instead of thinking, “I’m going through a difficult time and I’m having trouble,” think “I’m facing some challenges, but I’m working on finding solutions.”

You’re basically saying the same thing, except the second way has a more positive spin to it.  But sometimes that little tonal shift can make a huge difference to your thinking patterns.

5. Be creative

When negative thoughts come, it can pay to spend some time creatively.

Find a creative outlet for your thoughts.  Write things out.  Draw or paint something – even if you have to use a crayon.  As long as you’re using your creativity to get your negativity out, it can work.

Exploring your emotions through creativity acts like auto-therapy and can elevate your mood.

Creativity can feel like a release.  When you put your emotions through an art form, you get them out of your system and clear them out.

6. Take a walk

Because thoughts arise in the mind, it’s easy to assume that’s where they’re formed.  Well, that’s only partly true.

Sometimes our thoughts are a product of our environment.  For example, if you surrounded yourself with negative people and negative imagery, you’d probably start to think negatively in turn.

Stepping away from a negative environment can help immensely.  Take a walk alone away from your usual atmosphere.  Head somewhere uplifting like a park or museum.

Time spent distancing yourself from those negative influences can bring you great peace of mind.

7. Start listing out what you’re grateful for

Have you forgotten all the good things you have going for you?  Sometimes in the daily grind, we lose focus on all the ways things that are going right in our lives.

If that’s you, then you need to re-train your mind to focus on all the good happening around you instead of the bad.

List off everything you’re grateful for no matter how small they seem to be.

Don’t take anything for granted anymore.  Sometimes the good things in our lives are right in front of our faces and we still fail to see them.

Stop being blind to the positive things you already have going for you.

Read more at http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/7-ways-clear-mind-negative-thoughts/#BrBhy88Uye78S6Ke.99

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The mindful revolution

The mindful revolution | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently.

 

Read more: The Mindful Revolution - TIME http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2163560,00.html#ixzz2rEcla1uj

Vilma Bonilla's insight:

My beloved mindful practice is a full fledged trend/ revolution, Lol. Read more about it. I post a lot on this topic; see site posts below.

 

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Six surprising things that affect your brain

Six surprising things that affect your brain | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

Brain scientists in recent years have discovered a number of surprising ways that the brain influences our overall health, as well as how our behavior influences the health of our brain. And unlike in the days of old — when scientists believed the brain was “fixed” after childhood, only to start an inexorable decline in the middle to later years — today, research is showing that the brain is perfectly capable of changing, healing and “rewiring” itself to an unexpected degree.

It turns out that the age of your brain may be a lesser influence on its structure than what you do with it. Pursuits that require intense mental focus, like language learning, “switch on” the nucleus basalis, the control mechanism for neuroplasticity.

In short, neuroplasticity means you have some control over your cranial fitness. While brain function naturally deteriorates somewhat as you age (though not nearly as much as you might think), various strategic approaches can create new neural pathways and strengthen existing ones as long as you live. What’s more, these efforts to build a better brain can deliver lasting rewards for your overall health.

Here are just a few of neuroscience’s most empowering recent discoveries.

Your Thoughts Affect Your Genes

We tend to think of our genetic heritage as a fait accompli. At our conception, our parents handed down whatever genetic legacy they inherited — genes for baldness, tallness, disease or whatever — and now we’re left playing the hand of DNA we were dealt. But, in fact, our genes are open to being influenced throughout our lifetime, both by what we do and by what we think, feel and believe.

The new and growing field of “epigenetics” studies extra-cellular factors that influence genetic expression. While you may have heard that genes can be influenced by diet and exercise, many researchers are now exploring the ways that thoughts, feelings and beliefs can exert the same epigenetic effect. It turns out that the chemicals catalyzed by our mental activity can interact with our genes in a powerful way. Much like the impacts of diet, exercise and environmental toxins, various thought patterns have been shown to turn certain genes “on” or “off.”

The Research

In his book The Genie in Your Genes (Elite Books, 2009), researcher Dawson Church, PhD, explains the relationship between thought and belief patterns and the expression of healing- or disease-related genes. “Your body reads your mind,” Church says. “Science is discovering that while we may have a fixed set of genes in our chromosomes, which of those genes is active has a great deal to do with our subjective experiences, and how we process them.”


One recent study conducted at Ohio University demonstrates vividly the effect of mental stress on healing. Researchers gave married couples small suction blisters on their skin, after which they were instructed to discuss either a neutral topic or a topic of dispute for half an hour. Researchers then monitored the production of three wound-repair proteins in the subjects’ bodies for the next several weeks, and found that the blisters healed 40 percent slower in those who’d had especially sarcastic, argumentative conversations than those who’d had neutral ones.

Church explains how this works. The body sends a protein signal to activate the genes associated with wound healing, and those activated genes then code blank stem cells to create new skin cells to seal the wound. But when the body’s energy is being “sucked up” by the production of stress biochemicals like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, like it is during a nasty fight, the signal to your wound-healing genes is significantly weaker, and the repair process slows way down. By contrast, when the body is not preparing for a perceived threat, its energy stores remain readily available for healing missions.

Why It Matters to You

Just about every body comes equipped with the genetic material it needs to deal optimally with the physical challenges of daily life, and the degree to which you can maintain your mental equilibrium has a real impact on your body’s ability to access those genetic resources. While habits of mind can be challenging to break, deliberate activities like meditation (see the following studies) can help you refashion your neural pathways to support less reactive thought patterns.

Chronic Stress Can Prematurely Age Your Brain

“There’s always going to be stress in the environment,” says Howard Fillit, MD, clinical professor of geriatrics and medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “But what’s damaging is the distress we feel internally in response to it.”


Fillit’s distinction points to the bodywide reaction our bodies experience when we routinely respond to stress by going into fight-or-flight mode. In our brains, the stress response can cause memory and other aspects of cognition to become impaired, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and accelerated memory loss with aging. One thing that can happen is you can start feeling a lot older, mentally, than you are.

“Patients come in complaining of faulty memory and wonder if they’re beginning to get Alzheimer’s,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice-chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and author of The Superstress Solution (Random House, 2010). “Their workups and MRI scans look normal. In the interview, I ask them about their lifestyle and almost invariably they have compounded stress.”

The Research

Studies at the University of California–San Francisco have shown that repeated instances of the stress response (and their accompanying floods of cortisol) can cause shrinkage of the hippocampus — a key part of the brain’s limbic system vital to both stress regulation and long-term memory. Call it the downside of neuroplasticity.

Why It Matters to You

Aside from the obvious — no one wants his or her brain to age faster than it’s already going to — this research matters because it suggests that you have some influence over the rate of your own cognitive change.


To protect the brain from cortisol-related premature aging, Lee suggests building stress disruptors into your regular routine: “A five-minute period in the middle of every day during which you do absolutely nothing — nothing! — can help a lot, especially if you are consistent about it,” she says.

Her other recommendations include eating breakfast every day — complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies) and some protein. “Breakfast helps your metabolism feel like it won’t be stressed — caught up in a starvation-gluttony pattern,” she explains.

And when anxiety does strike, a good way to initiate the relaxation response is her “four-five breath” routine: breathing in through the nose to a count of four, then out through the mouth to a count of five. “Repeat it four times and you’ll feel the relaxation,” she says. “Best of all, do the four breaths twice daily, at the beginning and end of the day.”

Meditation Rewires Your Brain

Meditation and other forms of relaxation and mindfulness not only change your immediate state of mind (and, correspondingly, your biochemical stress level and gene expression), they also can alter the very structure of your brain. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, cofounder of the San Francisco–based Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, has extensively studied the effect of meditation on the brain, with a particular focus on how neuroplasticity allows for permanent changes for the better in your gray matter.

The Research

“Of all the mental trainings — affirmations, psychotherapy, positive thinking, yoga — the one that has been far and away the most studied, in terms of effects on the brain, is meditation,” Hanson says. Some of the most prominent research has come from the collaboration between French-born Buddhist monk and author Matthieu Ricard and University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD. Their studies have shown that a high ratio of activity in the left prefrontal areas of the brain can mark either a fleeting positive mood or a more ingrained positive outlook.

Brain-imaging tests have shown that Ricard and other veteran Buddhist meditators demonstrate initial heightened activity in this region, along with a rapid ability to recover from negative responses brought on by frightening images shown to them by researchers. This suggests that their long-term meditation practice has helped build brains that are able to not just enjoy but sustain a sense of positive well-being, even in stressful moments.

Why It Matters to You

“Stimulating areas of the brain that handle positive emotions strengthens those neural networks, just as working muscles strengthens them,” Hanson says, repeating one of the basic premises of neuroplasticity. The inverse is also true, he explains: “If you routinely think about things that make you feel mad or wounded, you are sensitizing and strengthening the amygdala, which is primed to respond to negative experiences. So it will become more reactive, and you will get more upset more easily in the future.”

By contrast, meditative practices stimulate the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain’s outermost layer that controls attention (this is how meditation can lead to greater mindfulness, Hanson explains), as well as the insula, which controls interoception — the internal awareness of one’s own body. “Being in tune with your body via interoception keeps you from damaging it when you exercise,” Hanson says, “as well as building that pleasant, simple sense of being ‘in your body.’” Another plus of a strong insula is an increased sensitivity to “gut feelings” and intuitions and greater empathy with others.


Perhaps best of all, meditation develops the circuitry in the left prefrontal cortex, where the unruffled monks showed so much activity. “That’s an area that dampens negative emotion, so you don’t get so rattled by anger or fear, shame or sorrow,” Hanson says.

“Deciding to be mindful can alter your brain so that being mindful is easier and more natural,” he explains. “In other words, you can use your mind to change your brain to affect your mind.”

Your Brain Learns By Doing

The mirror neuron system is the name for those regions of the brain with synapses that fire whether you’re actually doing or merely watching an action — as long as you’ve done it previously. Doing an action lays down neural connections that fire again when you watch the same action. This accounts for the connection you feel when viewing a sport you’ve played, or why you wince when you see someone else get hurt.

The Research

Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma in Italy first noted the mirror effect while studying the brains of macaque monkeys. When a monkey was watching one of the researchers pick up a peanut, the same neurons fired as if the monkey — likely a seasoned peanut gatherer — had picked up the nut itself. The researchers labeled these specific cells “mirror neurons.” In the human brain, entire regions light up in response to a familiar action; this endows us with a full-fledged mirror system.

Why It Matters to You

The existence of the mirror system helps explain why learning a new skill is easier if you try doing it early in life. This includes doing it clumsily, rather than hanging back watching your instructor or a video until you think you “have it.” Watching before you try means that you will probably see very little; watching after you try will engage the mirror system, increasing your brain’s power to “get it.”

As London-based neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, PhD, puts it, “When you look at something you have done before, you are actually using more of your brain to see it, so there’s a richer information flow. Until you started playing tennis, you couldn’t see the difference between a good topspin stroke and a bad one; after a few weeks of practice, when your coach demonstrates the stroke, you really get it visually. And you can thank the mirror system for that.”


The mirror system is also what endows you with the empathic ability to feel the pain or joy of others, based on what you register on their faces. “When we see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons help us to read her or his facial expression and actually make us feel the suffering or the pain of the other person,” writes UCLA neurologist Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, in his book, Mirroring People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). “These moments, I will argue, are the foundation of empathy.”

Growing Older Can Make You Smarter

For some time, the prevailing view of a brain at midlife was that it’s “simply a young brain slowly closing down,” observes Barbara Strauch. But she notes that recent research has shown that middle age is actually a kind of cranial prime time, with a few comedic twists thrown in for fun.
“Researchers have found that — despite some bad habits — the brain is at its peak in those years. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the middle-age brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom and what to ignore, when to zig and when to zag,” she writes. “It stays cool. It adjusts.”

The Research

Brain scientists used to be convinced that the main “driver” of brain aging was loss of neurons — brain-cell death. But new scanning technology has shown that most brains maintain most of their neurons over time. And, while some aspects of the aging process do involve losses — to memory, to reaction time — there are also some net gains, including a neat trick researchers call “bilateralization,” which involves using both the brain’s right and left hemispheres at once.


Strauch cites a University of Toronto study from the 1990s, soon after scanning technology became available, that measured the comparative ability of young and middle-age research subjects to match faces with names. The expected outcome was that olde