When good turns bad, it's because a specific wire in the brain—a survival circuit—has been triggered. These survival circuits that send you running to the refrigerator or reaching for your credit cards are formed during intensive stress. Let's face it: Cookies make you feel good, if only for a moment. When you are in intensive stress and you eat a cookie, your brain sees that cookie as the only thing that has made it experience good sensations, so it begins to associate that cookie with survival. Which means you don't just want that cookie, you need it!
As long as that wire is left in place, forbidding cookies just makes you want more, which stresses you out more and triggers the circuit again. In emotional brain training, you work to rewire that survival circuit.
The Tool: The first step in rewiring a survival circuit is to stop judging or controlling the behavior. When you're taking part in extreme behavior, remind yourself: "It's not me. It's just a wire." It takes awhile for that message to weave itself into the unconscious mind, but remember, the behavior is not the problem—the circuit is. Forcing yourself to stop a behavior will cause it to boomerang and be more extreme. Or that circuit will latch on to a substitute behavior that is no less extreme.
In that same moment when you don't pass judgment on yourself, you must give yourself the emotional experience that you most need: love. Feel compassion for yourself. The emotional brain circuits—those survival level drives—only rewire in response to an equally intense emotional experience and you arouse that negative feeling, then swamp it with compassion. That moment of insight into your pain and the choice to arouse equally intense positive emotions erases the circuit. The drive for the excess weakens or disappears altogether.
Changing how you process daily stress and resetting your emotional set point takes work. Emotional brain training is not a quick fix—it must become a personal practice. Yet even just using these three tools can begin to create more moments of joy in your life. And with joy, extremes fade, so good won't turn bad.
Laurel Mellin is a New York Times best-selling author and an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. She directs the national research coordinating center for emotional brain training (EBT) in UCSF's Center for Health and Community. Her most recent book, Wired for Joy, was released by Hay House in June 2010.
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