Positively Speaking Blog

We Are What We Think: Anxiety, Depression And How Positive Psychology Can Help

Anyone who suffers from anxiety and depression knows the challenge of mustering up positive thoughts when feeling down. But here are five things you might not know about anxiety and the brain, how your thoughts affect your brain and why positive psychology can help.
1. Anxiety has roots in human evolution

Anxiety is NOT a personal weakness or character defect. Anxiety is a natural human tendency that helped our ancestors adapt and survive over the ages.

Evolutionary research indicates that animals with anxious temperaments (e.g., nervous, clingy, driven) were more likely to survive, procreate and pass on their genes. Through time the human brain became highly attuned to fight or flee from potential threats to our core needs: safety, satisfaction and attachment. We genetically inherited what’s known as a “negativity bias,” a brain that is predisposed to find and focus on “what’s wrong” in our environment. Having a vigilant brain helped our species stay alive, develop community and evolve.

Although anxiety functions to keep the brain alert, it also makes us hyper-attentive to everyday environmental stressors. Relatively minor things can set off our fight/flight instinct, flooding the body with cortisol, which was designed to aid our chances of survival. Cortisol causes us to overreact and increases negative emotions.

Anxiety stimulates a mind-body pattern in which our every thought, word and action are filtered through a defensive rather than cooperative neuro-channel.

Knowing our genetic ancestry pre-dispositions many of us for anxiety often helps people de-personalize their condition.

Strengthening positive thought patterns and developing positive emotions has been proven to help manage anxiety. Exercises in gratitude and optimism help rewire the brain, generating calm and cooperative thought patterns and reducing aggression.

2. We really are what we think

Many wisdom and philosophical traditions have long suggested (to quote Buddha), “We are what we think.”

The latest neuroscience research demonstrates that human brains are indeed shaped by our patterns of thinking. As it evolved, the human brain gained efficiency by carving out neuropathways from existing thought patterns to increase its ability to process sensory inputs even faster. This helps explain why it can be so difficult to feel positive when your high-speed brain train is charging down a negative track.

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, the respected author of Hardwired for Happiness, “Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting” the structure of our brains.

As conscious beings, what we think today has an effect on our future thinking. Despite our natural tendency toward a “negative bias,” positive psychology techniques can help us change our thinking from negative to positive and climb aboard the happiness train.

3. Positive psychology is more than “happy talk”

According to Harvard Health Publications for Harvard Medical School, positive psychology is much more than just “happy talk.” It makes sense: when you feel positive, you simply function better and are naturally motivated to pursue inspiring opportunities, engage in beneficial activities and reach for and achieve success.

Positive psychology methods and techniques stem from the latest neuroscience research and are widely recognized as effective in helping people develop positive emotions, beliefs and attitudes. They promote psychological well-being and robustness, which helps prevent mental illness and has been shown to reduce the effects of traumatic brain injury.

Research also suggests that positive emotions strengthen the immune system and protect heart health, which means that positive thinking is a key ingredient to living a healthier and longer life.

4. Happiness is learned

We all want to lead happy, healthy lives, but research shows that surprisingly few of us know how.

Did you know that only about a third of our personal strengths are natural, that is, based on our genetics and the personality we’re born with? Two-thirds of our strengths and attributes—characteristics that get us successfully through life—are learned. As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.”

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, positive thinking and happiness are skill sets that need to be developed and nurtured through learning and practice. The same goes for well-being. Based largely on the work of psychologist Carol Ryff, well-being therapies help people learn self-acceptance, self-sufficiency and how to build and manage positive relationships, as well as lead productive, meaningful lives.

5. Anxiety and depression don’t discriminate but social stigma does

The World Health Organization reports that 350 million men, women and children around the world suffer from depression and affective disorders.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

The social stigma surrounding anxiety and depression often leaves people feeling isolated, ashamed and unwilling to get help for fear of being identified as weak or lacking in character. Because many people also dread being medicated or undergoing extensive therapy, they are reluctant to speak to their medical doctor. They don’t want to be emotionally poked, prodded or “diagnosed.”

Although the reasons for anxiety and depression are varied, complex and often deeply unconscious, recent research demonstrates how the brain affects our thoughts, feelings and actions. This is important because the more we know about how our brains work, the better we can manage our thoughts, emotions and how we function in the world.

Although more research is needed, a growing body of evidence also presents encouraging results from positive psychology and complementary therapies as effective treatment options for situational anxiety and depression.

Summary – Learning to let go

For many of us, letting go of anxiety is a daily struggle.

As Dr. Rick Hanson writes, “The reactive mode of the brain has worked very well for survival for most of human history, but today it’s stressing our whole planet.” Although most of us aren’t born wired for positive thinking, the brain is a learning machine designed for change. Growth is our evolutionary history.

References:

Hanson, R. and Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence: New York, NY: Harmony.

Harvard Health Publications for Harvard Medical School. (2014). http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/positive-psychology-in-practice.htm

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081.

Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: A edudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies 9(1), 13-39.

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Vintage.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

World Health Organization. (2012). Mental health: Depression. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/index.html

World Health Organization. (2012). Mental health: Depression. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/index.html
Photo Credit: http://blog.workhealthlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/think-positive.jpg

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