Sticky Notes: Velcro, Negative Thoughts and Your Brain
You probably think your “mind” helps you create what you want in your life. But that actually may be further from the truth than you realize, when it comes to old, unhealed events or patterns.
Do you ever wonder why you keep falling back into old limiting beliefs, or your fight-or-flight is continually triggered by the same old story, even though you've worked on changing it?
You can place a good chunk of the blame, right at the level of the brain.
Your mind is built from the experiences you have, and here’s where it gets interesting. Your hippocampus (that part of your brain at the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system) stores events that you considered “negative, traumatic, stressful or harmful” differently, as a way to keep you safe in the future.
These negative events or limiting beliefs are like Velcro to the brain and stick to the hippocampus like a red flag to warn us. The positive events we have are more like Teflon – and slide right off.
As the information on what is actually happening at that moment comes in through your occipital lobe, the brain reads the possible “negative” danger that it sees and combines it with a whole bunch of red flags from our past situations. Much of what we are reacting to may be something in the past, not what is right in front of us. But still, the amygdala sounds the alarm to the rest of the body and epinephrine, adrenalin and cortisol are released to organize you for action.
When the alarm of a coming disaster is sounded again and again, there can be long term physical consequences on your health, your hippocampus becomes worn down, and you may no longer have a clear record of what actually happened. Existing synaptic connections are weakened, impairing their ability to produce new memories. Continual red flags can reduce the production of dopamine, the feel-happy chemical, deplete norepinephrine (which helps you feel alert), and your serotonin may drop, causing you to feel vulnerable and less interested in the world or things you used to love.
(For more on the science behind this, check out this great TED talk from pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris on how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. Here's the link. )
It may be old limiting beliefs from your childhood, or even a totally untrue belief set up in a time of trauma or confusion, that are playing like an old movie from the past. Many of these old memories operate right below the surface, and we don’t even recognize when a limiting belief has been activated. When this old red-flag movie plays again and again it actually strengthens the nerve connections and reinforces that negative painful pathway. And suddenly your thoughts are running in a negative direction
Whether today’s red flags are a real threat, just a worrisome thought, a putdown by a family member, or simple anticipation of a negative event, they all can trigger the amygdala response and YIKES to the brain. Personal self-sorcery or negative thoughts about yourself can have the exact same reaction within your brain – taking your resources away from good long-term projects or what you want to create with your life to handle short-term crisis.
What I love about Shamanic practices is that they offer the tools to tap right into the brain’s capacity to learn and thus change itself – which is called neuroplasticity. When neurons fire together, within a few milliseconds of each other, they strengthen their existing synapses and form new ones; this is how they “wire” together (Tanaka et al. 2008)
Shamanic tools like ceremony help you step off the minefield of red flags in the hippocampus; You can grow new neurons, allow new memories to form, and shift your wiring to create and Velcro in an extraordinary life.