We all know the question about the half-empty, half full glass, right? In the course of my work lately, where I help match candidates to available job positions (no, I am not a recruitment consultant, though I do feel like one!) I have spoken to many individuals who have been knocked down once too many times, and now view things through the "half-empty" lens. Yet, this is precisely the focus they CANNOT take if they are trying to secure a job. While they may not know this, half-empty candidates give out a dour image of themselves and this can be picked up by the hiring manager or recruiter. No one wants to back a horse who is on a losing streak (ouch!). Hence, they don't get selected for the job, even though they may be perfectly qualified for it. This then adds to the already bleak outlook, and that spirals into a vicious cycle. But this applies not just in a job interview, but in every aspect of our lives. If we do not portray confidence in a product, a service, our company, our country, ourselves, we will not be able to convince someone else to be confident and accept your proposition. The first thing that needs to change is your perception, and interestingly enough, it is not difficult to do; it rises and falls on your thinking.
The triune brain
Neuroscience research has only over the last decade and a half uncovered how our brain functions, especially when it comes to emotions and thoughts. To understand this, we need to understand the structure of the brain. There are three main parts to the brain - called the triune brain - and each of them had been added to our physiology over time through evolution. The oldest part of the brain is called the reptillian brain, and that is the brain stem which controls all the involuntary functions of the body (that's the brown part of the image). It is so called because this part of the brain is common to mammals and reptiles alike. The functions of this part of the brain cannot be impacted by cognition (although some fakirs have been known to be able to control their bodily functions with their mind, but that is not a universal competency) and we will not discuss much more of this part of our brain than this.
The next part of the brain to have evolved is the mammalian brain (that's the green part in the image). This comprises the amygdala, the thalamus and the hippocampus; the limbic system. This is known as the "seat of emotion" because the amygdala processes a number of emotional reactions. It is also through this system that a person reacts to oncoming or perceived threats. We will uncover that in a while.
The last and most recent part of the brain to have evolved is the primate brain, or the neocortex. More specifically, our left prefrontal cortex (the blue portion in the image) deals with all the higher order thinking processes, and it is this that helps regulate the responses of the amygdala.
How your brain works
When your senses pick out an incident - which could be emotional or physical - it first sends the impulses to your amygdala for it to react. Since the limbic system controls the secretion of hormones like adrenaline which primes the body for "fight or flight", the impulses need to reach that part of the brain first so that it can react to a threat without any form of cognition. A split second later, the sensory impulses reach the neocortex which then assesses the threat, and then either escalates the emotional response or de-escalates it. In other words, the effects of the amygdala can only be modulated by the neocortex - the left prefrontal lobe. Sometimes, the neocortex cannot override the strong emotions elicited by the amygdala, and before one can think rationally, the mammalian brain had already reacted to it, sometimes to disastrous outcomes. Road rage is one example. When someone is enraged by another driver cutting him off on the road, and it fills the system with adrenaline and cortisol to the extent that the person cannot do anything more than simply react in a hostile manner, the neocortex has been subverted. It is only when the body has completely washed out the effects of adrenaline and cortisol can he regain some form of higher order thinking, by which time it might be too late. The damage may have already been done.
Sometimes, the neocortex can keep the system constantly in hypersensitive mode. By bringing to mind adverse memories, for example, reminding the person that he has not had a job for the past 2 years, and that they don't have any money, and that he is good-for-nothing, the amygdala will then flood the system with more cortisol and adrenaline, creating more stress, and keeping the person hostage to the negative mindset. But just as the neocortex can keep a person locked into the negative spiral, it can also bring it out of it. By focusing on the positive aspects of the situation, by keeping calm and refusing to allow the mammalian brain to hijack the situation, it can turn the tide of negative emotion onto a positive outcome.
So how can one control one's mammalian brain? Here are four suggestions:
(1) Do not react
Practise stoicism. Keep calm in any situation be it a good one or bad. Some people may say that you lack emotion, but that is not the intent here. The intent is to dampen any emotional response so that it does not affect you. When you are able to get hold of your emotional responses, then you can assess whether to react to them or not.
(2) Always look on the bright side
You can always choose how you see something positively or negatively. We all know what will happen when we focus on the negative, so why not look at things from a positive angle. For example, if you were fired from your job, you could look at it as an opportunity to find a better work environment, or a chance to go into business for yourself. If you have already been out of a job for a while and there is nothing on the horizon for you, you could look at it as a way to remake yourself. Perhaps to look at the value you have for people and offer a service of excellence in that area. Or if a potential client keeps on saying that the time is not right to go into a contract with you, you can focus on the day that you do, and you could constantly increase your value proposition for that person until the day arrives. As we all know, "No" in business never ever means "No" forever! Hence, we must focus on the bright side, and never allow dark thoughts to take over.
One of the reasons why we are under stress is that the adrenaline and cortisol that are produced by the limbic system when under duress builds up in the system. This impedes us from applying thinking to dampen the system. In order to regain our balance, exercise. After all, adrenaline is the "fight or flight" hormone, meaning that you need to do something physical. If that is not done, then the adrenaline remains in the system, and it builds and builds, creating more and more stress. That stress then short-circuits the prefrontal lobe which inundates the system.
(4) Focus on the fun
Do you listen to upbeat, fun music? If not, you should try. And not just passively sit there and let your mind wonder while the music is playing. It is in joining with it, and belting it out in your shower or while doing the chores (that is another GREAT way to get your daily dose of exercise). Dance and sing, and have fun - and for those in a healthy relationship, you know how else to get that, right? The more you engage in these positive events, the more you flood your system with endorphines, the feel-good hormones; and the more your system is flooded with endorphines, the more positive your outlook is; and the more positive your outlook, the better your disposition to break the negative spiral.
So are you in the doldrums now? Your best bet is to move away from it by adopting any or all of the above ways. Ultimately, you want to build a virtuous cycle, rather than a vicious one. Focus on the positives and use that to build greater resilience in your thinking. You know you deserve that!