It's not always easy: Coping tips from psychology

Which wolf are you feeding?

negative thoughtsMost students occasionally have thoughts that are unpleasant, worrisome or critical. These thoughts, of course, make us feel bad. When such thoughts occur, despite knowing that they are not helpful, we may feel powerless to control them.  There is a conflict between what we are thinking and how that makes us feel, and how we would like to be feeling.

This conflict is well-represented in the fable about two wolves.  Although there is some question about the origins of this tale, it frequently has been referred to as a Native American legend.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.  He said “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is negativity, it’s anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame and hate. The other is positivity. It’s joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.”

The little boy thought about it for a while and asked his grandfather, ”Well which wolf wins?” And the grandfather answered, “The one you feed.”

the wolf you feed

The parable is really about where we focus our attention.  It seems that, in general, people tend to spend more time focusing on negative experiences in life than focusing on what is good. In psychology, this is referred to as the “negativity bias”.  It is considered to have evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. In our evolutionary past, our survival depended a lot more on our ability to recognize danger than on our ability to notice the positive.  Not noticing a lion waiting in the grass could end your life.  Not noticing a field of wild fruit that you are passing may just leave you hungry for a while longer. According to clinical psychologist, Rick Hanson, negative stimuli produce more activity in the brain than do equally intense positive stimuli.  “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.”  We have become wired to pay more attention to negative information, and we perceive it more easily and more quickly. Apparently, the brain is good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good experiences. So, many of our good experiences may feel good in the moment, without having any lasting value.

wolf - negativity bias

Nowadays, having a constant negativity bias is no longer necessary for our survival, and, in fact, increases our stress levels and makes it more difficult for us to cope. Can we train our brains for more positivity? Can we start feeding the more positive wolf? Do we get a choice? According to the most recent neuroscientific evidence, the answer is “YES”.  According to Hanson, who calls this “taking in the good”, there are things that we can do to begin to feed the good wolf. Hanson recommends the following three steps to overcome negativity bias:

  1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. Look for the positive aspects in every experience. Make a habit of noticing the good in the world and in yourself.
  2. Take the time (at least 20 to 30 seconds) to pay attention to and enjoy positive experiences. Don’t just let a positive experience quickly pass. Making positive sensations last longer, solidifies them in our long-term memory. Savour them. (look at this blog).
  3. Focus on and sense the feelings of those good experiences as they are sinking into you. Imagine the positivity spreading through your body, like a warm glow spreading through you. While you hold the good experience in your awareness, it becomes hard-wired into your brain.

According to Hanson, “Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.”wolf - book of awesome

I enjoy Neil Pasricha’s book,  The Book of Awesome, because it reminds me of how easy it is to find and to celebrate life’s little pleasures. Noticing all of those positive, “awesome” things that you may experience on a daily basis can put a smile on your face. Don’t just let them slide by.

Some examples from the The Book of Awesome:

  • Taking your bra off after wearing it for hours:  It just feels like freedom.  AWESOME!
  • Licking the batter off the beaters of a cake mixer, despite getting batter all over your face. AWESOME!
  • When the thing you were going to buy is already on sale. AWESOME!
  • The thank-you wave you get when you let somebody merge in front of you. AWESOME!
  • Blowing out all the candles on your first try. AWESOME!
  • Taking off your shoes on a long car ride. AWESOME!
  • Finally getting that eyelash out of your eye. AWESOME!
  • When your sneeze stalls for a second and then suddenly comes booming out. AWESOME!

So take care, have an awesome day, and remember to feed the good wolf!

Rhonda Gilby

This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.

wolf - velcro and teflon