Anne couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed thinking about a mistake she made, the pile of work on her desk, and the infinite number of things that could go wrong.
I had a night like that last night, lying awake at two am pondering a variety of worst-case scenarios.
If you find yourself experiencing stress attacks in the middle of the night, you are not alone. Most of us have experienced nights like that, and for a good reason: Our brains have adapted to do two things very well – make predictions, and focus on what could go wrong.
Our brains constantly make predictions about what is going to happen next. If something went wrong once, we are primed to watch for it to happen again.
Jeff Hawkins, founder of the Redwood Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, explains: “your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now.” He adds “prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex, the foundation of intelligence.” (On Intelligence)
In tandem with this predictive tendency, we also have a natural bent to focus our attention on what has gone wrong, and what could go wrong. In his book Flourish, founder of the field of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, explains:
“For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well. (Flourish)
To reduce your levels of stress and anxiety, and to counteract our mind’s focus on the negative, try the “what-went-well exercise” developed by Seligman:
The what-went-well exercise:
For one week, every night before you go to sleep, set aside a few minutes to write about three things that went well during your day and why those things went well.
It is important to record your reflections either by hand or on a computer, as this will strengthen the effectiveness of the practice.
The three things don’t need to be of great significance. They can be simple occurrences that were positive. For example, Andrew wrote in his journal that a partner he works told him a memo he prepared was very well done.
The next step is to consider for each thing that went well “why did this this happen?” Andrew had written about positive feedback from the partner about a memo. He reflected this happened “because when I was drafting the memo and got stuck on how to approach one difficult point, I met briefly with the partner to discuss the issue and get further clarification.”
Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but it quickly gets easier to do. The research indicates that if you stick with it you will likely experience a drop in your stress levels, and will feel generally happier. What’s more, Seligman reports you will “be addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
As your brain learns that you will be looking each day for examples of what-went-well it will begin to be alert to instances of this throughout the day. This means you will notice more positive occurrences and this in turn helps to reduce stress and increase your overall sense of happiness.
Skeptical? Then I challenge you to test this practice for two weeks to see what results.
I started this morning with a sense of tension and anxiety and so I will be using this practice to get myself back on a positive track.
Do join me in giving it a try and let me know what you discover.
Originally published September 30th 2015, on SLAW.ca