by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Remember that weird 80’s health food slogan, “You are what you eat”? As if becoming a tofu stir fry might somehow inspire us? Okay, so I know the point was to remind us to eat healthy if we wanted to be healthy…
Today I’m campaigning for a brand new health slogan: “You are what you think.” New brain technology allows us to see actual differences between the depressed and anxious brains and that of more balanced people. But check this out: you can shift what is happening in your brain by shifting the focus of your attention.
It takes a heck of a lot of work because our hind brain is literally one million times more efficient than our frontal lobe (40 million nerve impulses per second versus 40 nerve impulses per second), so the negative programming that starts out as a protective reaction to the activation of our fight-flight-freeze response (AKA: limbic system and amygdale) becomes this self-perpetuating machine of negativity.
Clichés usually have a good sized grain of truth buried in their slogan-shaped hearts. “Think happy thoughts” is one of those simplistic Florence Nightingale type statements that inspires visions of violence in the listener towards the speaker, and yet if we can get beyond irritation there is actually some hard science to support the sentiment: when we think about things that inspire us, comfort us, and connect us to loved ones, our brains release dopamine (also released during orgasms and opiate use) and serotonin (anti-depressants increase serotonin levels) and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels decrease, resulting in a natural anti-depressant effect. For free. Without those pesky sexual side effects.
I don’t advocate the ostrich approach, meaning if you are truly unhappy this is like painting a smile on a frown and it will not go far. But I believe happiness and contentment are muscles we would all do well to flex and develop more often.
Today as I look out my kitchen window and see the ubiquitous northwest rainscape I’m picturing sunshine and blue skies and the gorgeous unfurling of flowers in the springtime. Hmmm…I might shop for some peacock feathers to place in a vase to remind me of fully and joyfully saturated color.