Each Shot of Satisfaction is related to one of the seven steps in the process of REFLECT. My hope is that, by sharing with you how I apply these steps in my daily life, it will help you on your journey to a fulfilling life of caregiving.
In this weeks Shot of Satisfaction video, Dr. Frank Gabrin, the author of Back from Burnout, shares with us how gratitude and appreciation can shut down negativity and boost happiness.
Step 4 – LOOK at your position within the transaction of care, and ask yourself if you are the cause of something better or the effect of another’s situation. Am I reacting or am I responding? Reframe your role (in the patient encounter, or any interpersonal encounter), and your position in regards to your goal: to understand that the obstacles to your satisfaction aren’t outside you, but within you. Make the inner transformation and shift your position in your personal, internal quantum space from a negative to a positive one.
The other day, I was working clinically and the department was busy as well as short staffed. Almost everyone was complaining. Some were complaining about their difficult, more challenging patients or their family members. Some were complaining about the high acuity and sheer volume of medications and treatments that were necessary.
A few were complaining about each other; “That new grad nurse is so slow. They just don’t have the experience they need to do their job. That old battle-ax nurse is so lazy and he never helps anyone else.” Others were complaining that they hadn’t had even five minutes to get some food or use the rest-room.
The negativity bias
Complaining, and the negative feelings it generates, is as contagious emotionally as the common cold is physically. There are scientific reasons why negativity spreads so easily between us. Our central nervous system has been designed by six hundred million years of planetary evolution. Solutions to survival problems that were necessary for our ancestors, and those that preceded them (other primates, mammals, ancient reptiles, primitive life and even cellular organisms) are found within the anatomy and physiology we are born with today.
Survival of the individual, and the species, evolutionarily dictated that our ancestors be hyper-vigilant and on the look-out for danger, conflict and loss. As a result, our brains evolved a “negativity bias.” This bias causes us look for bad news, react intensely to it and and then quickly store the experience in a neural structure so that if the same threat appears again, we will recognize it and react to it even more quickly and intensely.
It’s in our DNA
Todays science helps understand our two neuroanatomical systems that work together to cause us to be naturally drawn to the negative in our environment and amplify, or augment, our awareness of it: The limbic system and the mirror neuron system. The limbic system is closely tied to our five senses and contains the amygdala – the primary danger detector for physical threats to our personal safety, like a saber tooth tiger up ahead in the clearing.
The MNS [mirror neuron system] is responsible for the process of mimicry. Our MNS gives us the power to know what others in our environment are feeling. This system is capable of recognizing seven universal emotions and is culturally blind. These seven emotions are anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, contempt and happiness. You might notice that only one of the emotions, happiness, is positive, hence the “negativity bias.” Our MNS is constantly on the lookout for other humans in our environment who might be capable of harming us.
Because of these systems link to personal safety and survival of the human species, they are powerfully tied to our emotions and especially active when we feel threatened. The limbic system, the amygdala and the MNS work together to generate the experience we have all come to know as the “adrenalin rush” and the intensely automatic fight, flee or freeze response. These systems deal with the basest of human needs, survival, and is designed to let us know that someone dangerous just walked into the room.
We are running on default
As caregivers, we know first hand that we feel sad around depressed patients, nervous when we are around anxious or frightened patients and agitated or annoyed when we are around angry people. Mimicry, as a result of the MNS, automatically and unconsciously cause us to mimic or imitate the facial expressions, postures and voices of the people around us. Different expressions trigger certain moods, the same exact moods experienced by the person who just walked into the room displaying them. The process happens so fast that we have no cognitive awareness of the process.
These systems are buried deep within our brain and involve some of the oldest parts of our brainstem sitting right on top of our spinal cord. They can not be interrupted and we can’t turn them off. As a result we (humans) are naturally on the lookout for the “bad” in our immediate environment.
Negative experiences, such as those generated by a negative threat, generally feel especially awful. According to Rick Hanson, PhD, while our underlying bias toward negativity may be good for our immediate survival, it is very bad for quality of life, peaceful and fulfilling relationships and lasting mental and physical health. He goes on to say, “This negativity bias is the default setting of the “Stone Age Brain.” If we do not take charge of it, it will continue to take charge of us.
In other words, what Dr. Hanson is saying is that we will automatically see the bad in our environment, in our patients, in their families, and in each other. This is our automatic human operating system’s default setting. As a result, the emotions that are generated by our limbic system actually cause us to feel bad, and we naturally begin to complain about feeling bad, and we begin to name everything that is wrong with our environment and those that we are in immediate contact with. This is lousy for quality of life let alone job satisfaction or engagement with our work.
It doesn’t have to be this way
It is not in our nature to actively look for the good in our environment or for the good in others. But have you ever noticed how happy we feel when a happy person enters the room? This too is happening automatically and unconsciously as a result of our limbic system and MNS. The significant difference is that happiness, and our automatic emotional reaction to it, makes us better at almost everything a human can do; mathematical calculations, spacial perception, logical reasoning, physical strength, just about all of our capacities are enhanced or augmented. Not only does happiness make us feel better, we are better and we can do better!
What would it be like if we could find a simple way to be happy, at work? By understanding how our MNS works in a negative fashion, we have the power to transform our experiences with others during our work day, especially when we are focused on generating the intangible thing called care. Awareness of our negativity bias and the effects of mimicking others through the unconscious processes of our mirror neuron system, opens the door for us to have more pleasure and satisfaction when working with patients, interacting with families and most importantly when interacting with each other. You are probably wondering how.
Fortunately for us, modern science has found an antidote for the experience of negativity we are complaining about at work and in life. Gratitude. It may sound corny, but according to Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, science has proven that the practice or the experience of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feeling as anger and bitterness. Gratitude dissolves negative feelings. It is hard to feel resentful or irritated when you are feeling grateful. The experience of gratitude or appreciation helps people cope with stress. Expressing gratitude bolsters self worth and self esteem. Better yet, gratitude and appreciating others actually makes us, happy.
Scientists are proving over and over again that the body and the brain operate much better when we are feeling good and are showing us what the specific costs are when we are not feeling good. Barbara Fredrickson tells us that “Positive emotions broaden our scope of attention, cognition, action and build physical, intellectual and social resources.
So the trick is to recognize, when we are feeling cranky and frustrated, irritated or annoyed, that it is our limbic system and our MNS that brought us to this place automatically. With this awareness, we now have the power to change things for ourselves and others by using our free will to inject the antidote of gratitude into our system. By understanding our unconscious physical and emotional reactions, we can consciously move into the feeling or experience of gratitude.
When we actively begin looking for something to be grateful for, we are automatically taking our limbic system, our amygdala and our MNS off-line through our effort to see the good in our environment and those around us. To activate our own good feelings, once we see one of our co-workers taking the high road or walking the extra mile to care for another, help a patient or a co-worker, we can go pat them on the back and let them know we took notice. We can ask them if there is something we can do to help them, we can help without asking or we can leave a short thank you on a post-it note and put it on their computer screen while they are in a room.
Be creative. There are countless ways to express gratitude. The last time we talked, I was so happy about the good feelings generated by the direct from the factory Krispy Kreme donuts I brought in to show my appreciation of my coworkers. Food is a great way to let those you work with know you appreciate them and the work they do. Look around, think about what you would like. The possibilities for showing appreciation to another are endless.
Gratitude changes everything
The take home point here is that, although it is automatic and natural to see the bad (it’s part of our evolution and our physiology), we have the power of free will to be able to change it. The negativity bias was very necessary in times gone by. Today, it totally wrecks our experience and diminishes our quality of life. At the very least our negativity bias steals our own happiness from us. We can stop it with simple gratitude.
Simple does not mean easy. It will take effort, heroic effort actually, to actively look for the good, especially when we are feeling let down, under-appreciated, taken for granted, taken advantage of, miffed, irritated or angry. But once you do, with the good feelings gratitude generates, this instant antidote for our uniquely human condition will energize and empower you and those around you.
We don’t have to be anything less than happy and engaged at work when there is a tool we can use to instantly make ourselves and our co-workers feel better. By using our free will to activate gratitude, we stop experiencing the effects of our negative bias to our environment and start becoming the cause of something better. Consciously establishing the feeling of gratitude within ourselves and then making an action of appreciating another causes us both to feel good, feel better, feel happy almost instantaneously. There is not much more powerful medicine than that!
Look at your mood and ask yourself, are you the cause of something better or the effect of another’s bad day or foul mood? Ask yourself if your limbic system and MNS have drug you down into the mud? Most likely you will realize that you are not feeling well and at the very least you would like to feel better.
As simple and as corny as it is, make the effort to actively look for something good someone has done to be thankful or grateful for. Next, take it one step further and actively appreciate them by using your creativity to find a way to acknowledge them publicly or thank them personally more subtly. There is no right or wrong way to appreciate, it is just important that we appreciate each other! This is the sort of care that is simple, practical, and extremely effective!
Care, make a difference and change (y)our world-
Frank D. Gabrin, D.O
Back from Burnout: Seven Steps to Healing from Compassion Fatigue and Rediscovering (Y)our Heart of Care
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