Soooo long 2020

What a year it has been. 

Strange. Stressful. Exhausting. 

As we say goodbye to 2020, what can we do to begin to recover? Although we’re not out of the woods, we can still begin to replenish our empty tanks (so to speak), and our exhausted brains by practicing two attitudes as we shift into 2021.

Our brains in 2020

Even in normal circumstances, the brain is constantly trying to predict the future so that it can steer us toward physical and emotional safety.

As 2020 has brought unusual amounts of uncertainty and novel situations, the brain has had to work a little harder than normal. And the harder it works, the more energy it needs to function – literally, it burns more calories and needs more glucose. 

So if you’ve been exhausted this past year, it’s no wonder. 

At the same time, when we’re stressed, the brain wants us to do something to relieve the stress. The adrenal glands produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get us ready to take action. And the limbic brain, home of the amygdala and the fight-flight response, is activated.

But in 2020, so much that has caused our stress has been beyond our control. So stress hormones get us ready to act, and but if there’s nothing to do about it, there’s no release, except perhaps trying to do more thinking, or ruminating, which can be both frustrating and tiring.

Time to shift

OK, thanks 2020 for the exhaustion and frustration. Now what? How can we begin to shift out of it?

Because we can rewire the brain, so we CAN do something about it. And when we do, we improve our stress resilience, our brains and our happiness in 2021.

If we can bring 2 attitudes to our minds and our lives in 2021 – curiosity and gratitude – we will do much to support our brains in recovering from the prolonged stress, frustration and exhaustion of 2020.

Attitude #1: Curiosity 

While our brains tend to focus on the negative and potential threats to keep us safe, they also want to prepare us to take action in response to things that are new, exciting, interesting or that might bring us joy.

And when we anticipate something new, interesting or pleasurable, research shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine is released. So just by anticipating an experience of something new, or being open to possibility, a chemical releases in the brain that is associated with reward and pleasure.

Having an attitude of curiosity, instead of judgment or knowing, can also bring a sense of exploration, wonder or awe, which has been linked to a release of chemicals that are key to experiencing joy and pleasure. 

In coaching, I often work with clients to get to a place of curiosity or possibility, and when this happens, the brain and energy shifts.

And if we can linger in the feelings of curiosity and wonder, allow the emotion of it, then we strengthen the neural connections for it, make it more memorable, meaningful, and repeatable. 

Attitude #2: Gratitude

Gratitude can strengthen connections in the prefrontal cortex, associated with executive functioning, self-regulation and well-being.

In a study of UC Berkeley, college students who wrote a letter of gratitude to one person for 3 weeks (compared to those wrote about their negative thoughts and feelings, and those who did not write at all) showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex when later experiencing gratitude.

In a similar study, people who were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety were asked to write letters expressing thanks. Three months later, brain scans showed that those who had written letters of thanks had a greater neural sensitivity to gratitude, shown by significantly greater activity in the prefrontal cortex even three months later.

Other research found that practicing gratitude helped reduce feelings of impatience and foster self-control, which suggests activation of the prefrontal cortex which is critical to impulse control and delaying gratification.

Finally, when we show or receive gratitude, the brain releases dopamine – same as curiosity- and serotonin, both neurotransmitters that help us to feel good. Research also shows that gratitude activates areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory (hippocampus and amygdala), which means not only that it will elicit feeling, but also that some strong neural connections will light up and help us return to neural pathways.

Curious and grateful in 2021

Any time you need a mindset shift, I highly recommend this 5-minute video that is bound to elicit some meaningful gratitude.

We have so many ways to practice curiosity and gratitude – there’s no single way. Below are just some questions to get started, and you can also find ways to pause in the feeling and express them.

  • What are the simple comforts or things that support you or bring you pleasure each day? 
  • Who are the people that support you, make you laugh, bring you joy? 
  • What brings you wonder or awe? What is one thing each day that inspires wonder or awe – a sunset, bird, animal, tree or anything in nature? (Click here for more on the benefits of nature.) 
  • What possibilities might open up if we stay curious? If we could pause before judging and become curious about what we’re hearing, seeing or observing, what might happen to a conversation, a relationship, or problem? 

To really make a shift stick, keep a gratitude journal. Or in a stressful or negative moment, you can shift the negative neural patterns by find 3 things that you’re grateful for.

If you’re reading this at the end of 2020, you’ve got something to be grateful for because you’re still alive in an unprecedented global pandemic.

As for me, I’m grateful for so much, including my health, family, friends, pets, nature, meaningful work, and for you, dear reader.

What’s one thing that makes you feel wonder, awe, or gratitude?

Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash