Before the age of 2, different attachment styles are encoded into us. When we’re loved, nurtured and supported, we’re off to a healthy start as far as how we feel about and handle ourselves. We can have a stronger sense of self, and can feel more confident and trusting in others and ourselves. When we’re raised in an environment where the love and attention was sporadic, uncertain and/or dangerous and threatening, however, we move into our adult lives with more anxiety and fear. We may not be as trusting, may over- or under-compensate to feel loved and accepted, and may struggle with a healthy sense of self.
Are we stuck with this programming if we had a rough start? Not necessarily. We may have to do more work to catch up, but through tools, strategies and ways of retraining the brain, we’re not stuck at all. In this blog series (you can find the first of the series here), we’ll be talking about neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and rewire, versus being rigid and set.
So first, here’s a really simple way to see how the brain impacts how we feel. We receive signals all the time from others and from our environment. We’re hardwired with certain things like a “negativity bias,” for example. A negativity bias is the proneness to see something as negative, dangerous and harmful versus positive and helpful. It’s not because we like to complain or find fault, it’s for our safety. This is different than being an optimist versus a pessimist, or seeing the cup as half full versus half empty. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say millions of years ago you were walking down a path and you saw a snake. If you assumed it was a stick instead and grabbed it, it meant death. But if instead you assumed it was dangerous and approached it with caution, you stayed alive. That’s the negativity bias in action and because it was there, it kept you safe.
If it wasn’t a snake and in fact was a stick, your negativity bias would still be at work. You would see the stick, think it’s a snake in order to protect you, and be pleasantly surprised to find it’s a stick after all. After a big sigh and moment of relief, you could pick it up, bring it back to your cave, and use it for a needed purpose. That reaction by the negativity bias is hardwired to keep you safe and alive. (We may not need it to keep us safe and alive now, but understanding the negativity bias can give you some slack as to why you’re cautious.)
Besides the negativity bias, we have other wiring, and the more we understand it, the more we can work with it to help us handle our reactions and responses the way we want to.
Let’s go back to your old anatomy class where you learned this (and if you’re like me, you forgot) – but now as an adult, getting a refresher helps to explain why you feel the way you do.
So there’s the autonomic nervous system which, without our awareness, controls bodily functions like breathing, your heartbeat and your digestion. We don’t need to think about it, it’s working 24/7 every moment you’re alive.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) includes a few branches, but we’re going to focus on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
• The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight/flight response. That’s how we’re able to quickly get the blood and oxygen we need to our heart, lungs and limbs so we can run to safety. For example, let’s say there’s a car racing towards you. Your sympathetic nervous system ignites your stress response, and that’s why you can easily jump the curb and stay safe.
• The parasympathetic nervous system helps us “rest and digest.” It helps to slow and calm us down, versus revving us up to fight or flee.
When these systems are balanced and in homeostasis, we feel good. When they’re out of balance, we don’t.
• An over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to anxiety, stress, and over time, can lead to stress-related illnesses, symptoms, conditions and disease.
• An over-activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can cause us to numb out and shut down, close up and withdraw.
In this series we’re going to be diving in deeper on how to begin to regulate these responses and start to bring you back to a more balanced and comfortable state. For now, see if you can remember a time when your negativity bias was hard at work to save you. What happened and how did it help you?
Photo from here, with thanks.