Research & More Wisdom
by Yancy Wright
What is keeping us from experiencing more joy in life? People are told that life has its “ups and downs,” and many of us believe that joy is surely not meant to be felt all the time. Yet, recently I’ve started an inquiry process that centers around this one question: regardless of the ever-changing circumstances of my life, is there a shift that I can make internally that would allow me to feel joy all the time?
I started my search by reviewing my past. By wondering about my upbringing, I realized that I learned from a young age how to master self-criticism, judgment and criticism of others. I grew up in an environment where boys and men were taught to be tough. The fastest way to thicker skin was to both endure and dish out condemnation and disapproval. I remember feeling confused about the purpose of this consistent criticism, as if there was an unspoken agreement that it was a form of endearment. Putting someone down was meant to show them that you cared and wanted to see them improve. The ability to be critical was often accompanied by a feeling of pride around being a critical thinker. Yet, I also watched this intended endearment or critical thinking get spiraled into hurt feelings, disconnection and resentment in my family. I remember watching my Grandfather put my father down and my father treat me similarly. I now see how my own thoughts have been regularly flooded with criticism of myself and others.
I realized that my learned predisposition to criticism was the number one habit robbing me of the ability to feel consistent joy. With further research, I found a range of scientific evidence to back this up. Criticism was designed as a shortcut to help early humans evaluate, store and review information for survival and safety. Yet as our society has evolved, our brains have over-learned criticism of ourselves and others. This unhealthy form of criticism has been identified as a key component of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, physical health conditions, and even suicide based on research in the US, Canada, Israel, and Europe.1
- Self-criticism derails people’s social environments. It propels them to generate interpersonal stress and it interferes with the ability to experience positive, enjoyable life events.2
- Research is showing that our higher-order cognitive controls become impacted and limited by criticism.3
- The inner critic cannot operate at same time as creative flow. The area of the brain responsible for criticism and self-monitoring is deactivated at the height of creative expression.
- During creative flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control, goes quiet. The DLPFC holds our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement. As a result, with this area de-activated, we’re far less critical and far more courageous, both augmenting our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world.4
A habit of criticism of self and others stems from our child rearing and social influences. According to a 25-year study of infants, children learn how to behave by passively imitating parents and other children.5 These habits get stored in the unconscious part of the brain and shape adult behavior. Those deeply stored preferences, feelings, intuitions, and gut reactions become unconscious guides for the present. Like me, many people have learned a predisposition to critical—rather than appreciative—ways of thinking about self, others and even life.
So, if it’s emerging that you might be one of these people, and you notice that unhealthy criticism is hurting both your self-esteem and your relationships with others, how do you reverse it?
The antidote to criticism is appreciation. Appreciation leads to joy and daily practice can help sustain lifelong joy. If you want more joy in your life, it is important to overcome unhealthy criticism by developing a practice of authentic appreciation. Generating a state of awe and wonder opens the doors (and windows, closets and dusty attic) to appreciation.
- A one-time act of thoughtful appreciation produced an immediate 10% increase in happiness and 35% reduction in depressive symptoms.6
- Appreciation lowers blood pressure. Negative emotions create a chain reaction in the body—blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and the immune system is weakened7.
- Appreciation is a much better motivator. 80% are willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said they’d feel better about their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly.8
- Appreciation increases mental strength by reducing stress and has been linked as a key to overcoming trauma. A 2006 study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude and appreciation experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.9
- Grateful people report feeling healthier than others, noticing they experience fewer aches and pains.10
- Sleep improves with positive emotions of appreciation and gratitude, activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, initiating the relaxation response.
- Criticism activates the sympathetic branch, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. Appreciation and gratitude have been shown to reduce the time required to fall asleep, increase sleep quality and sleep duration.11
So why aren’t we moving away from criticism and thriving in a life of appreciation and gratitude? As a teenager I felt challenged to appreciate myself and others. Thinking it would make me appear or feel weak, I was scared that somehow by appreciating someone they might think they were better or more important than me. Self-appreciation felt especially awkward, for fear of inflating my own ego (i.e., getting too full of myself).
Try this appreciation practice as a way to begin shifting away from self-criticism. Each evening write down 5 things you appreciate about yourself and when you feel comfortable, share 5 things you appreciate about another. Tell them you are working on creating a habit of appreciation. Even if they are small, find a way to move beyond the critical voice. Consider joining the appreciation challenge at: http://foundationforconsciousliving.com/appreciation
It has taken years of practice to cognitively restructure my internal self-talk, to generate self-appreciation and allow others to appreciate me without brushing it off. By practicing appreciation daily, I have opened the doors to giving and receiving more appreciations to and from others with more ease. My relationships are stronger and more loving. A life based in appreciation now feels so much better than one guided by criticism. When I fall out of practice, I simply recommit to appreciating. This practice of appreciation opens a deeper level of presence and awareness of myself, others and my surroundings bringing much more joy in my life.
Yancy Wright, is a visionary leader with an ability to take individuals and teams into realms they never thought were possible. He created https://www.alternavida.com to inspire transformation and growth for individuals, groups, and companies looking to deepen their integrity with themselves, each other, and nature. This article was inspired by the amazing work of Katie and Gay Hendricks https://hendricks.com
1) Shahar, G. (2015). Erosion: The psychopathology of self-criticism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-11-642
2) Shahar, G. (2015). Erosion: The psychopathology of self-criticism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-11-642
3) The Effect of Criticism on Functional Brain Connectivity and Associations with Neuroticism https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069606
4) Kotler, S. (2014) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-playing-field/201402/flow-states-and-creativity
5) The imitative mind: Development, evolution, and brain bases. Cambridge University Press; New York: 2002. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2440575/#R36
6) Seligman, Martin E. P.: Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, University of Pennsylvania. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-08033-003
7) Emmons, Considering that, it’s no wonder gratitude has been shown to lower blood pressure https://health.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2015-2016/11/20151125_gratitude.html
8) Glassdoor Team, Employers To Retain Half Of Their Employees Longer If Bosses Showed More Appreciation; Glassdoor Survey. https://www.glassdoor.com/employers/blog/employers-to-retain-half-of-their-employees-longer-if-bosses-showed-more-appreciation-glassdoor-survey/
9) Kashdan T. et al Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16389060
10) Hill P. et al. Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23139438
11) Nancy D. et al. Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x
Learn about why we feel fear, the four types of fear, and what you can do to shift from Fear to Here. Download a PDF of the entire article here.
by Vandana Verma
“Emotions are played out “in the theatre of the body”—A.R Damasio
Why is learning about fear important?
Biology tells us that fear increases the chances for survival when expressed in friendly ways and, conversely, can lead to anxiety and stress-related disorders when suppressed or undealt with.
The fight-or-flight response was discovered by Walter Canon in the early 20th century. This term has described our body response to fear for over a century. Since then, neuroscientists have come a long way in their understanding and characterized four types of fear.1 These four types of fear are less well understood but highly prevalent in our everyday behaviors and reactions, most of the time without us even noticing.
Why do we feel fear?
Humans have evolved with a variety of innate, hard-wired, automatically activated defense behaviors, termed the defense cascade. Choosing and rapidly implementing the appropriate response in a threatening situation is critical for survival. In animals, behavioral reactions to threats fall into two general categories: 1) those that reduce chances of being noticed by predators, such as freezing (passive), and 2) those that enhance it (to avoid capture), such as fleeing or retaliation strategies, such as fight (active).
Passive and active defenses are mutually exclusive: a prey cannot simultaneously flee and fight, or freeze and flee. Understanding how our defensive responses are controlled in the brain is important for those in high-risk professions who need to perform optimally under stress.
Recently, research scientists have found distinct cells in areas of the brain responsible for flight responses in the amygdala (the fear center in the brain). Two different types of neurons are responsible for fear responses. Activation of one of these set of cells, which expresses corticotropin releasing factor (or CRF—a peptide hormone involved in the stress response that indirectly lowers cortisol), triggers flight. Activation of the other set of cells, which expresses somatostatin (a peptide hormone that regulates the endocrine system and neurotransmission), initiates freezing. The researchers suggest that we can switch rapidly between responses to ensure the highest chance of survival.2
The four types of fear that have ensured our survival for so long, interact with each other in ways that scientists are only beginning to recognize.
Flavors of fear
Renowned neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux suggests that the difference between fear in humans and animals is that we experience fear as a feeling. He compares it to the creation of a soup, with different ingredients such as survival circuit activity, brain arousal, body responses, feedback, memories, thoughts and predictions.3 In the presence of these different neural ingredients, fear emerges similarly to the way the essence of a soup emerges from its ingredients and gives rise to our particular flavor of fear which could involve any or all of the four types of fear.
So what are the four types of fear?
Let’s start with the most well-known—fight. Fight is an active defensive behavior, meaning that it needs movement for it to occur. On the surface, fight looks like anger. Most of us can’t discriminate fight fear and anger. So how do I know if I’m in fight? Body characteristics of fight-fear include increased heart rate, adrenaline release, pupil dilation, and elevated muscle tone. One way to differentiate the two is to notice the body sensations of anger (clenched jaw, tight neck/back) and the body sensations of fear (typically located in the belly area).
Freezing in fear is another well-known fear reaction and is a passive (non-moving) defensive behavior present in many species including mice and humans.4 Freezing is a simple, yet powerful avoidance strategy that reduces motion and visibility, supporting the gathering of information and increasing the chance of disengaging the predator’s attention. Freezing in humans is characterized by reduced heart rate and decreased movement. The physiology of freezing involves both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.5, 6
For many animals, their defensive strategy is actually picking from a menu of options—freeze first, flee if you can, and fight if required. Some species have other options available, such as playing dead (which also called tonic immobility). The equivalent of this in humans may be “faint”. Tonic immobility is a threat‐related response characterized by physical immobility and muscular rigidity in the face of extreme fear and inescapability. Although rare in the general population, it is often reported in PTSD patients. One theory is that faint, or collapsed immobility (both passive fear defenses), might be a version of this response and takes place later in the defensive cascade, when the threat is inescapable and no other defensive responses remain. 5, 6, 7
Flee (flight)—an active defensive behavior essential for survival in the face of threat. The purpose of flee or flight is to create space between the predator and prey thereby increasing the prey’s chances of escaping.
From Fear to Here—Fear MeltersTM
What solutions do we have to shift us out of fear easily? Fear MeltersTM 8 assist us in moving out of the defensive behaviors engaged by our nervous system by activating the opposite pathways in the brain. e.g. If I am in fight fear, an active defensive behavior, then movements and actions that activate a more passive state are likely to alter the feeling of fear and activate different neural pathways in the brain. Most people have difficulty in controlling their responses whilst in fear and unconsciously shift into a combination of the four types of fear. Shifting between different passive and active defensive modes happens in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).
The Fear Melters™ are designed to rewire our automated neural patterns as an easy first step in unlocking the fear response, giving us choice and freeing up resources in the body, such as working memory. They may also help alter breathing rates so that serotonin is released. Supporting ourselves in the midst in fear rather than trying to get rid of it, allows us to liberate the energy from our defensive reactions while breaking the cycle of repeated adrenalization. Ultimately when we develop new habits, we can adapt to, and overcome repeated behaviors driven by fear.
1) Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Faint: Adaptations Perspectives on the Acute Stress Response Spectrum. (2004) H. Stefan Bracha. CNS Spectr. 9: 679–685.
2) Fadok JP, Krabbe S, Markovic M, Courtin J, Xu C, Massi L, Botta P, Bylund K, Müller C, Kovacevic A, Tovote P, Lüthi A. (2017) A Competitive Inhibitory Circuit for Selection of Active and Passive Fear Responses. Nature, 542. 96–100.
3) Coming to Terms With Fear. (2014). J.E Ledoux. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 111(8):2871-8.
4) Updating Freeze: Aligning Animal and Human Research. (2014). Hagenaars MA, Oitzl M, Roelofs K. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 47:165-76
5) Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, & Carrive P. (2015). Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23 (4), 263–287.
6) The Role of Automatic Defensive Responses in the Development of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Police Recruits: Protocol of a Prospective Study. Koch S, Klumpers F, Zhang W, Hashemi MM, Kaldewaij R, van Ast VA, Smit AS, Roelofs K. (2017). Eur J Psychotraumatol. 8 (1):1412226.
7) Freeze for Action: Neurobiological Mechanisms in Animal and Human Freezing. (2017). Karin Roelofs. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 372 (1718).
8) Conscious Loving Ever After. Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks. p116-124 Hay House, Inc. 2016.
Men tend to walk differently with other men than with women. And Americans walk faster with children, whereas Ugandans move more leisurely.
People move differently when they walk in groups than when they walk alone. And their walking style is especially distinct when they walk with children, according to a fascinating new cross-cultural study of pedestrians in several nations.
The study, which also shows that men tend to walk differently with other men than with women and that some cultures may promote walking speed over sociability, underscores that how we move is not dependent solely on physiology or biomechanics.
It is also influenced to a surprising extent by where we grew up and who we hang out with.
From New York Times
Our world is pretty messed up. With all the violence, pollution and crazy things people do, it would be easy to turn into a grouchy old man without being either elderly or male. There’s certainly no shortage of justification for disappointment and cynicism.
But consider this: Negative attitudes are bad for you. And gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If you invest in a way of seeing the world that is mean and frustrated, you’re going to get a world that is, well, more mean and frustrating. But if you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off.
Power. It’s that intangible thing that so many people strive for. For some people, feeling a sense of control — over themselves, others, situations or all of the above — is a natural thing. For others, it doesn’t come as easy.