According to the latest scientific findings, there is a biological law that governs every moment and aspect of your life, from your physical health to your thoughts and attitudes to your personal and business relationships. This law states that at every stage of life, we are in either growth mode or protection mode. This is true at the level of the cell, the community of cells that is a person, or a community of people that is a family, an organization, a nation, or a race.
Nothing throws us into protection mode like having our buttons pushed. A big challenge we face in creating the lives we want—for ourselves, our children, our businesses—is that our buttons (basic beliefs and attitudes) are a series of neural perception templates that were installed for us long before we had a say in the matter.
Through the stealthy process of implicit learning, our earliest childhood experiences install enduring mental templates that underlie our habitual patterns of thinking or reacting. Wrestling with them as an adult is a little like having someone give you a great computer, and discovering it's got some basic operating programs you don't like ... but can't seem to uninstall!
Moreover, this kind of automatic learning features a bad-news bias. Until recently, our survival throughout human history has depended on remembering every detail of how we survived threatening events, so our primitive brain systems pay much more attention to unpleasant or negative experiences, detecting, imprinting, and cataloging them. However, in order to thrive in the twenty-first century and beyond, we need to prioritize the positives of human experience—gratitude, appreciation, and connection. This is how we can, for the first time in history, unfold the full potential of our brains, including what brain scientist Paul McLean calls the "angel lobes"—the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of introspection, intention, conscience, and civilization.
You have probably heard that what we put our attention on increases. When we focus on the positive—beauty, possibility, enjoyment—it's like putting water and fertilizer on it, making it flourish and multiply. The same thing happens when we zero in on the negative—criticism, losses, and everything that's wrong. This isn't just fuzzy "law of attraction" stuff, it's also Brain Function 101: when we tune our attention in a certain way, either positively or negatively, we initiate a flow of biochemicals that carve brain pathways for more neurons to travel down that same pathway in the next minute, hour, day, year. Our attitude and focus also create a subconscious template of perception that filters the millions of incoming bits of life's information and captures those bits that match our initial proposition.
Can you see how quickly this becomes a feedback loop, spiraling either up or down? Here are some proven ways to interrupt that loop if it's spiraling downward, that is, when you're stressed out, upset, or angry:
These suggestions aren't just for crisis moments; they are fundamentals for developing our own inner wellbeing and peace. Our daily life is filled with messages of threat as well as hassles, annoyances, and sometimes unavoidable, real-life grief and pain. Part of the great privilege of our evolutionary inheritance is our self-reflective consciousness: we can make a thought inside our minds more real than anything outside our bodies! Evolving ourselves and our species turns on upgrading our perceptions—the story we tell ourselves about what's happening. That is how we will gloriously transform ourselves from the cell to the global family.
MARCY AXNESS, Ph.D. is a professor in
prenatal development, has a private practice
coaching/counseling parents, and provides
training for childcare, adoption, education,
and mental health professionals. A member of
Mothering magazine's online expert panel, she is
a popular international speaker and the author
of the new book Parenting for Peace:
Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.