Just as we began to believe our world might open up, that there may be a return to something we once regarded as ‘normal,’ fate showed up in multiple ways. I’ve told you about our record-breaking snowstorm and loss of power where I live in California. This happened at about the same time Typhoon Rai hit the Philippine Islands, ripping the roof off the home of a good friend. Currently, the East Coast of the U.S. is preparing for an epic winter storm they’re calling a “bomb cyclone.” And, to mention the tragically obvious – we have been invaded by yet another virus that promises to keep us captive.
We all react differently to the barrage of challenges we’ve experienced. Some people slip into hopelessness and depression, while others seem to find silver linings in every cloud that hovers over humanity.
It’s this latter group I want to talk about with you in the hope that we might tap the ability of the human brain (evolutionarily wired to latch on to negative experiences as a critical survival tactic) to override this instinct when it’s not helpful. I read a news story about people scheduling time to recall pleasant memories and have those feelings morph into a more lasting positive attitude. When I read feel-good items like that, I’m immediately skeptical.
So, I dove into scientific articles and consulted mental health professionals with more degrees than a kitchen oven. It turns out the theory isn't just happy talk - it's based on empirical research by qualified researchers. Here are some of the big words and findings:
The pressure of too much negative input triggers the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis stress response,” which throws us into a state of heightened awareness of danger (good if you’re being chased by a mammoth, bad if you’re in line at the grocery store). But when we call upon our memory to revisit positive memories, the corticostriatal circuits (say that fast three times) come to life and connect to parts of the brain that respond to positivity. According to the mega-brains at the National Institutes of Health, this demonstrates “… the restorative and protective function of self-generated positive emotions via memory recall in the face of stress.”
I’m excited about this and surfing through my own list of marvelous memories to conjure up when I’ve made the mistake of reading the news feed on my iPad. (How many hospitals are overcrowded because of Omicron? America’s democracy is in danger of falling? A midwinter forest fire in the Colorado mountains consumed how many homes?)
When there seems to be no escape from danger, it’s good to know that, with a little effort, we can impact our brain chemistry by intentionally thinking about events that once brought us joy, hope, pleasure, and a sense of control. Accessing our personal power is not a meditator’s fantasy or the result of alcohol or cannabis-laced gummy bears. Memory is available to each of us. It’s free, safe, measured, and reproducible in a laboratory through the tools of modern neuroscience.
Let me tell you one of my memories that’s been floating in and out of my mind this week as I contemplate the glacier that’s made my mailbox inaccessible for ten days – requiring me to watch for the little postal truck so I can run outside (wearing ice-spikes on my shoes) to catch the delivery driver before he skids down the hill:
It was ten years ago B.C. (Before Covid). My husband and I were attending a fundraising gala in Los Angeles. It was a glittery affair, and I felt like a country bumpkin in a Hollywood scene. Recognizable stars lit up the room, floating across the floor in tuxes and gowns worthy of the spotlight. There was Goldie Hawn, tossing her long blond curls and gracing a group of people with her pearly smile, the dashing Kurt Russell at her side. And Jane Fonda, queenly and tall and looking not a decade over 40, though I knew she was older than me. Bert Reynolds, Sally Field, and many other people who sparkled in a way that said, “I’m Somebody,” glittered like tinsel as they floated around the grand room. And then, sitting at a table in the shadows, I saw Sidney Poitier. He was solid gold.
I don’t know if it was the large glass of chardonnay I’d enjoyed or just an impulse, but I excused myself from our table and walked to his side. I dropped down on one knee and thanked him for his contributions to film and for his lifetime work that opened doors and broke through barriers. He took my hand and held it in his for a moment, said a few words to me, and then reached down and kissed me on my right cheek. My feet did not touch the floor as I returned to our table. I was, I think, swept along on a cloud, deciding to never again wash that cheek. And, yes, reliving that memory does bring back the emotional high of that moment. It’s with me now.
Sidney Poitier, an icon of American film, is gone, but the memory he left – that’s forever mine. And it’s provided me with a tangible example of how we can awaken positive emotions. Once we recall and experience such valued memories, researchers found, we hold on to those feelings, and they can alter our perception of the present.
I’ve been told that hindsight is foresight. And this drug-free, widely available, and doctor-approved technique fits right into the metaphor. Give it a try and let me know. I’m already planning a booster session.
Thanks as always for reading my blog - you give me something special to anticipate each week. To escape the bad news and trouble that's fed to us on an all too regular basis. We all have memories that lift us up. I'd love to hear about yours! I've heard from a number of you and here's a couple of notes that show the diversity of experience in our world. First, from Patsy, who lives in St. Croix (with her apologies for having it so pleasant): "Wow. I guess you don't want to hear about my wonderful family visit over the holidays. Coffee on the beach each morning, sunset viewing in the evenings, long beach walks, snorkeling, outdoor meals together, hikes, sailing." And then this from Betsy who's feeling America's pain: "So much hardship across the country. We too experienced 30 hours without electricity. And we have no generator. My oldest brother lost his home in the Colorado fires last week. It always hits home when it involves family or friends, doesn’t it?"
One of the (few) things I'm looking forward to in 2022 is all of you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And I hope that sometime in our relationship you'll check out my mystery Novel, "The Song of Jackass Creek." It's getting fabulous reviews and suited to readers who prefer character and plot over blood and guts - people and places remembered from my days as the publisher of a small-town newspaper in the Sierra. eBook and paperback HERE !