As I write this, my 72-year-old mother is in critical condition battling with COVID-19. So this is not just a piece of theoretical advice from a guy that writes, trains and coaches others… I am trying my best to follow my own advice. Writing this piece to help others… is also a way to help myself.
It’s hard to stay in positive emotional states when we live surrounded by uncertainty, negativity, problems and the fatigue caused by constantly adapting to changes in our way of life. But you (and I) can do it. You can stay strong, healthy and positive regardless of the challenges in your life
I believe the trick to stay on our feet despite the challenges we face is the way we manage our brain and mind. It’s all a mental game that requires basic understanding of our neurochemistry. What we pay attention to (internally) creates energy and energy creates corresponding emotional states. Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin.
On the other hand, if we focus on negative thoughts, the brain generates cortisol, which fuels stress and anxiety. It doesn’t mean we should ignore our problems, it means that we can stay positive, focused and strong if we manage to accept the problem without staying stuck on it. If you let the problem kidnap you, it will knock you down emotionally and physically.
We can use our neurochemistry and exploit the miraculous power of neuroplasticity (our ability to physically change our brain) to change our experience anytime. We just have to understand better our brain and its connection to our body. This short excerpt from my second book, “Evolve & Restart”, sums up the foundation of the 5 ideas I share below:
Thoughts spark electro-chemical reactions to create energy, and today anyone can witness it in real time, with the help of a brain scanner. This is a scientific fact that can change your life. The energy you create depends on the thoughts and beliefs you choose to believe. It’s your attention that drives energy that leads to emotional states. There is a scientifically proven mind-body connection that we must learn to use in our advantage. Always remember that your thoughts are your main source of energy.From “Evolve & Restart” by Luis López-Portillo
All emotions (even if we try to deny them), beliefs and our self-narrative (identity) travel in and out of our nervous system (the central motherboard that integrates the mind-body connection). It’s all energy. You can create a positive personal experience when you take control of the energy that powers how you feel every single second. It’s all in your nervous system and you own (and should control) the energy that powers it.
You can’t change your external reality, but you can manage your internal experience. You can develop mental skills to endure difficult situations without anxiety and stress. This is exactly what I’m going through. You and I can choose to respond better, instead of reacting from stress. You and I can have a positive (or neutral) experience and stay strong despite the problems we are facing. These are five ideas that can help you (and me):
1-Question your beliefs
A belief is a personal law you live by. Most of your beliefs are unconscious and have a huge influence over you (I am not good with numbers). They are your life compass. A belief was born a simple thought. You believed it and you fed it, until it became a strict guideline. Even if a belief is not true, it still influences your decisions and reactions. If you believe something to be true, it governs your life. Beliefs also condition your interpretations.
Most of your beliefs are generalizations about your past, based on interpretations of painful and pleasurable experiences that registered in your nervous system at some point in time. All these programs are neural pathways physically engrained in the brain. Their filtering power and automatic creation of neurochemicals condition your reactions. Learn to identify them, question them and work to change them.
2-Improve your interpretations
With a little twist in interpretation (remember they are influenced by beliefs) the same event could be perceived in a different way. Everything changes inside if you switch the mental filters you use to view any event or situation. When someone doesn’t take your persistent calls, you can tell yourself that the person is deliberately ignoring you, or you can tell yourself that she is probably very busy. It’s your choice of interpretation and it’s conditioned by your beliefs and your biased imagination.
Epigenetics and other scientific fields have now solid proof that philosopher Marcus Aurelius was right when he said “our life is what our thoughts make it”. Your thoughts have a physical effect in the body; their energy can lead to emotions. Scientists have shown the world the flow of electromagnetic signals coming out of the brain that literally and physically create the emotional states that fuel moods and behaviors.From “Evolve & Restart” by Luis López-Portillo
In my personal case, if the hospital calls me to tell me my mother’s lungs need a higher dosis of oxygen, I can interpret it as bad news and stick to the thought that she is not going to make it, or I can choose to remind myself that it is a slow process and ups and downs are expected. My interpretation conditions my emotional state and internal experience. If I choose to stay more rational than emotional, I can stay strong and positive.
When a thought (negative or positive) pops out in your mind, you have two choices: to see it from an objective distance or believe it as if it were a fact. Whatever you choose, you create energy. The thought you choose to believe fuels your emotions. Being able to direct your attention to healthier and more rational thoughts affects your experience in a positive way, or at least in a neutral matter-of-fact way that doesn’t take away your peace of mind.
3-Manage your neurochemistry
You can always change the source of your emotions: thoughts you choose, beliefs and interpretations. Your emotions are the result of biochemical reactions energized by whatever you pay attention to (and choose to believe). You feel sad because you choose to keep thinking of your worries, fears or catastrophic thoughts. You feel worried because you keep bad news running over and over in your head.
Choose positive thoughts and you will create positive emotions and the corresponding positive energy. It’s really that simple. It doesn’t mean you ignore your problem or challenge, it means you don’t obsess about it. To deal with my challenges I either go to the Serenity Prayer or use the Stoics Reserve Clause (I will do my best but will accept the outcome).
The Reserve Clause is non-attachment to a desired outcome (our attachments make us suffer). I’m praying for my mother to get better, but I will accept with peace whatever happens, for it is out of my control. Whatever I can do to help her chances, I will do it. I keep myself confident, with the precious and vital help of my wife, and I try to keep my siblings positive. But I choose to be ok with the outcome. It’s not an easy duality.
4-Practice gratitude (every day)
Positive emotions generate positive energy and the most powerful of all emotions is gratitude. It maintains you aligned with your positive chemicals. Gratitude alters your neural circuitry. Gratitude does not change the challenges you are going through, but it helps you put things in perspective. I find it useful to list all my blessings to remain strong.
Gratitude challenges up-front your survival negative brain mechanisms. It stands a fight against worries, fears and the brain’s natural negative bias. Gratitude snaps you out of cortisol to focus on healthy (or neutral) thoughts and create positive energy. As long as you stay in “gratitude mode” your brain will be generating oxytocin (the chemical we should all aim for).
5-Find the positive in everything
You could argue that there is nothing positive about unemployment, a divorce, the loss of a family member or bankruptcy. Well, challenge that belief too. Always keep in mind that poison can be turned into medicine, one of my favorite Buddhism concepts. Adversity can be raw material for a new and better chapter in your life. Adversity can ignite reinvention.
It all depends on how you choose to frame a situation. Always keep in mind these words from roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing”. If you choose to believe this concept, it will unlock new possibilities in your mind. As for me, my mother’s situation has improved my family relationships and it has allowed me to discover so many people that love her and care for her.
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thoughts, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions”Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations”
Coaching, training and writing books about stress management and reinvention does not necessarily makes me a perfect person. I struggle and I fail too. I keep reading, researching and practicing so I can keep learning and growing. I try to improve every day to become a better administrator of my mental resources. Before I finish, I want to share three more ideas.
From my own struggle the last few days, I have to add the following ideas (they have helped me): 1-Deal with emotions; they are messengers. Don’t ignore them, because they still exist unconsciously even if you think you are in control. Denying doesn’t help. 2-Your body is always talking to you because it is affected by what you don’t see. Pay attention and listen to your body. 3-Get your catastrophic thoughts and uncomfortable emotions out of your system: cry them out, talk them out or write them out.
With acceptance (not fighting things we can’t control) and focus (directing our attention to our positive chemicals) we can beat the stress caused by problems and the anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow brings. Never forget you are the source of all your emotions, never forget you can learn to manage the energy that powers your nervous system. It all happens in your brain and it’s triggered by the way you manage your mind.