The sun came out in Northeast Ohio this week. We have about 300 cloudy days per year. That’s right up there with Seattle. So the first moment of Not-Winter when you drive with the car window down is pretty special.
I had that moment last week. To top off the sunshine and warm breeze, my mind was in a pleasant place too. Work is going well, my family and friends are in good health. And I was headed to one of my favorite events of the year, a concert put on by two local churches – a mostly African American Baptist congregation and a mostly white Mennonite congregation. The Baptists concentrate to stay in the structure of sheet music and the Mennonites concentrate to sway on beat. The end result is a lot of laughing and plenty of truly outstanding music. All was right with the world.
That’s when I heard the buzzing in my station wagon then saw it in my rearview mirror - a bee hovering around a back window. “Great. This ruins everything,” I thought.
I imagined the bee flying into my face, stinging me repeatedly until I crashed on the side of the road. All was lost. Just when life comes together, disaster is around the corner.
What This Story Means
How did I get from thinking all was right with the world to meeting my doom by the side of the road? Here’s an explanation from Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
"Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” He describes the brain as "Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones."
“The alarm bell of your brain - the amygdala - uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative,” writes Hanson. “Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory - in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage."
That means all those positive thoughts about sunshine and good life passed through my brain really quickly while that darn bee threat hung on. So what to do?
Step One: Bring it Back to Reality. Pull out of that negative spiral and address the concrete present moment. Here are a few facts I considered:
*Not all problems are as small as this one. (For someone allergic to bees, this one isn’t even a small problem.) Before you dismiss this simple 3 step process, I ask you to consider how much of your thought space is taken up with small problems. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you might be surprised to find how many of them are just buzzing noises. Also big problems can still be helped by this process. It’s just that Step Two has more complexity.
Step Two: Consider Options and Address the Problem
Since the bee can’t sting me from the back of the car, I could just ignore it. Or I could easily pull over and shoo the bee out.
Step Three: Make time for the Positive Thoughts to Stick
Once I resolved the problem, I needed to go back to thinking about all the good stuff – the feeling of sunshine in a warm car, a job I enjoy, the pleasure of watching my family and friends thrive, the delight of this concert. It took some effort to concentrate on the specific details of these good things, but that concentration helps them stick.
In the end, I got to the concert a few minutes after hearing the first buzz and left the window open for the bee’s escape. We haven’t seen each other since.
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