Reality is subjective. If 10 people witness an accident, you’ll likely get 10 stories about what actually happened.
What we notice and experience in daily life is largely dictated by the LENS through which we see the world. This lens is shaped by our experiences, attitudes, beliefs and external influences.
While we don’t always have control over our external circumstances, we DO have control over how we perceive them. This allows us to consciously influence our reaction, and in turn, re-shape our lens.
Things don’t always work out. This is called life. And, it’s rarely the situation that generates stress, but rather our perception and subsequent reaction to a situation.
Here’s how it works. You have an experience. Instantly, your mind interprets this situation. From these interpretations (thoughts), emotional responses are generated, and we react.
Imagine this. While casually browsing the vast selection in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, you’re suddenly jolted by the sharp pain of a shopping cart ramming into your heels. Your mind interprets the situation as a rude customer, your blood pressure rises and anger wells in your throat as you prepare to turn around and give this inconsiderate jerk a piece of your mind.
When you turn, you see the person who bumped you is blind and incredibly apologetic. Your interpretation changes, which dissolves your anger as you regretfully step out of the way.
So, why is it we automatically jump to the negative conclusion? It may be, in part, that we’ve previously experienced an absent-minded shopper bump into us. Even if we haven’t experienced this, our reptile brain (the oldest part of the human brain) is constantly on the lookout for threats. Thus, another possibility is that a “fight or flight” reaction is ingrained through our evolution and likely to be triggered.
Despite the fact that most of us don’t live in a place where our survival is regularly threatened, our reptilian brain is ever vigilant. Without data to the contrary, it can interpret ambiguous situations (getting bumped with a grocery cart) as a threat.
However, humans are fortunate. Our more evolved frontal lobes can override the initial interpretation and enable us to have a more rational (and positive) perception. We just have to practice engaging it.
The more we can interpret ambiguous situations as positive (or even neutral), the more we can train our brain and shift our perceptions. When we can view the world through a more positive lens, we reduce the major emotional shifts that cause stress and lead to unproductive reactions.
Over time, no matter what circumstances we experience, it can become a habit to respond calmly and rationally (this is one reason people practice meditation). Even if the person in the grocery store did absent-mindedly bump us, we can choose to interpret that she is having a bad day, rather than take it personally.
The best part is that the vigilance of our reptilian brain won’t diminish. It’ll still be available on the rare occasions when we face potential danger and truly need to react quickly. But during the other 99% of our lives, we can choose a positive perception, and in turn create a more positive reality.