travels down the axon (a threadlike protrusion of varying length that carries nerve
signals ) until it can go no further because
it has reached the synaptic cleft (the space
between two neurons).
Since an electrical signal can’t cross the
gap, the charge is converted into a chemical
packet, or neurotransmitter, which diffuses
across the synapse where it latches on to a
receptor cell on the other side. When the
molecule binds to the receptor, an electrical
charge is released which travels up the dendrite (similar to an axon, but receives nerve
signals) to the second nerve cell.
The link between cells is an electrochemical pathway. Many of these chemicals have
specific emotional signatures, such as oxytocin, which creates feelings of trust and attachment, ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which signals the adrenal glands to
release the stress hormone cortisol to create
feelings of arousal, and serotonin, the happy chemical. To quote the late pioneering
neuroscientist Candace Pert, neurotransmitters are “molecules of emotion.”
These chemicals are essentially drugs which
affect how we feel because of how they interact with the limbic system (emotional
brain), as well as the autonomic nervous
system (fight or flight and rest and restore) and digestive, immune, and respiratory systems. To somewhat oversimplify,
this means that when you think a certain
thought, recall something, or repeat something mentally, you initiate a neurochemical
reaction and an associated feeling ripples
through different parts of your body. For
example, when you feel stressed out in response to particular thoughts, it is because
your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you feel aroused. Depending on how
you feel, your mouth may become dry, your
palms clammy, and your stomach may feel
as though it’s doing double flips.
Each of us repeats habitual thought patterns that we know have unwelcome consequences because they make us feel bad
about ourselves and have a negative impact
on the ability to pursue our goals and interests and to feel happy and actualized.
Researchers in the area of PNI are reporting that negative, stress-inducing thoughts
adversely affect our immunity and raise our
white T cell count. An elevated white T cell
count usually means inflammation, a sign
that the body thinks it is under attack.
Just as negative thought patterns have ad-
verse effects, positive thoughts can create
positive effects, thus leading to increased
feelings of happiness, well-being, and confi-
dence. It turns out that happier people who
enjoy a generally positive state of mind and
cultivate positive thoughts also enjoy better
health and deal with stress better. As any-
one who’s ever sat for an exam knows, your
state of mind is not merely important; it ac-
tually determines exam success. If you go
into an exam feeling confident and upbeat,
you are much more likely to perform well.
By a similar token, when I was writing my
application letter to get into a PhD program
in Philosophy in Chicago, my academic ad-
visor cautioned me to write the letter when
I was feeling good and good about myself,
otherwise the letter would not convey an at-
titude of confidence.
Specific thoughts elicit related feelings,
which in turn influence our overall disposition and our propensity towards behaviors.
Our thoughts create our stance within and
towards our world, and consequently, our
experience—change your thoughts and you
change your world. Now this doesn’t seem
so new-agey… I take it that we all want
more happiness, satisfaction, and abundance in our lives, and if changing the way
we think helps to bring that about, that’s
something attainable over time.
We all have had (or are having) the experience of getting stuck in habitual ways of
thinking and acting. Frequently, we would
like to change such patterns but find that we
are repeating the same old groove, even when
it doesn’t feel good. Given the neuronal connections between different parts of the brain
that result from neurons in one wiring to
those in another, our habitual responses become hardwired. Add in the fact that we can
become addicted to the chemicals released by
neurons firing (think about gamblers and the
dopamine response, or chronic self mutilators), and we have a tricky situation.
Every time we react habitually to a given
stimulus, we activate neural pathways and
the brain regions housing those neurons.
As the same areas are activated over time,
they become thicker and denser, possibly
because the associated neurons in that area
branch out to make connections to other
neurons, or increase the number of cells
in those areas, or increase blood flow. The
more these areas are activated in our day-to-day experience, the more we react habitually. This is akin to the yogic discussion
of samskaras (latent mental impressions)
and vasanas, the behavioral patterns arising
from their activation. >>
WHEN CHOOSING AN AFFIRMATION MAKE IT:
Personal – what is it your heart most desires? Often, it’s our own negative self-beliefs that
prevent us from accomplishing our goals and living our dreams. Make your affirmation entirely
about you. Since you only have control over your own behavior, this is a pretty smart thing to do.
Specific – if you want to create change, or bring more of something into your life, you need to
know what exactly it is that you want. Similarly, if you want to replace negative thoughts with
positive ones (pratipaksha bhavana), you need to choose the replacement statements with care
so that you’re not left spinning when the negativity rises. You have a backup plan, so to speak.
Positive – the whole point of affirmations is to create positive change, to reduce suffering and
help you accomplish your goals and live a happier life. Humans already have a negativity bias;
our brains are hardwired to spend more time focusing on the negative. Our ancestors needed to
do this to ensure they were able to recognize threats to their survival, for example, wild animals,
poisonous berries, facial gestures indicating anger, envy, or hatred – potential reasons for a
member of an unfamiliar tribe to attack. We can use affirmations to overcome the negativity
bias and strengthen neuronal connections emphasizing the positive.
Present tense – why put off your heart’s deepest desire until the future? Welcome it home
now so that you feel it’s already happening.
Creating new habits and forging new neural pathways takes committed practice, it doesn’t
happen overnight. Try repeating the affirmation three times on awakening, so that the day
begins on a positive note and you call to mind what it is that you want to cultivate, to have more
of in your life. Repeat the affirmation three times before going to sleep, or possibly even repeat
it as a mantra, so that it filters through your unconscious as you sleep and you drift off feeling
positive and upbeat.