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Courage: A Triple Word Score for the Holidays

In honor of the new year, I'm giving thanks for the profound fact that I'm here, and here at a moment in history where we have the choice and tools to respond in ways that expand our humanity, and possibly our human future on this planet.
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The 2015 holiday season mixed a sense of celebration with a looming shadow of fear, not to mention all the usual anxieties around family, travel, resolutions, etc. As we enter 2016, three simple acts can increase our ability to greet stressful times with an open heart -- and, surprisingly, the open mind that a courageous heart naturally evokes.

Why courage? A recent New York Times column by Paul Krugman, "Fearing Fear Itself," powerfully echoes the famous words of FDR during World War II, highlighting a tragic human paradox. It is not the physical danger (in the case of Krugman's article, terrorism), that poses the greatest danger, but our unconscious reactions to it.

Terrorism, the latest mass shootings, individual shootings, refugees, climate change, stalled juries -- just thinking (or feeling) about these produces a physical reaction (subtle or quite obvious, depending on your body awareness). Research now shows that the physical sensations, usually a type of contraction, are directly linked to a contraction of the heart muscle. As it turns out, those contractions correspond to a contraction of attributes we associate with "heart," such as our natural kindness, empathy and compassion and higher cognitive functioning. Practically speaking, it's almost impossible to have a closed heart and an open mind.

What can we do? Challenge negative reactions, especially our automatic thoughts and actions, in the face of fear. Our brains, fired up with stress hormones, are designed to contract: to shut down nonessential systems, like reproduction, digestion, as well as our emotional aptitude and higher cognitive abilities. The brain then secretes exaggerated, scary stories in order to get us out of (perceived) harms' way as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, we have a terrible time distinguishing exaggerated negative automatic thoughts from real danger signals in the environment. So unless the threat is immediate, physical peril, our response is almost always inappropriate at best, and extreme and highly destructive at worst. Over time, we get stuck in black and white, us vs. them, zero-sum, highly distorted thinking.

Think of the last time you felt apprehensive about a tough conversation with a colleague, boss, or loved one. Were the thoughts running through your head realistic? Or were they purely negative, automatic thoughts? "She'll think I'm an idiot." "He'll realize I don't know what I'm doing, I don't measure up." "I'll ruin the relationship." "I'll get fired." "He/she/they will never change."

These automatic thoughts cause many of us to be silent, diminishing our relationships and our impact in the world. They cause others of us to lash out. On the individual level, this can be tragic. On the aggregate level, it can be catastrophic.

There is another way. We can learn to override our unhelpful instincts, choosing to be courageous -- open-hearted in the face of fear. (To clarify: Courage is not giving someone a piece of our minds, but giving someone a piece of our hearts when we're in conflict. Now that's challenging!)

As Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., author of The Compassionate Mind and creator of Compassion-Focused Therapy, says, "We're up against it," when it comes to our minds. Left untended, our survival instincts can severely diminish our humanity -- individually and collectively. We have to actively override negative instincts, and that's strenuous. We all deserve compassion for these beautiful but "buggy brains" we inherited. It's an ongoing practice to choose a different response. As with any new exercise, it gets a little easier as our muscles grow.

This (and every) holiday season, create or practice rituals that open your heart and mind. What helps? Numerous studies show the helpful effects of mindfulness, gratitude and positive emotions, especially awe and compassion, as well as cognitive behavioral techniques to move out of blind fear and back into connection with our values, greater perspective and common humanity.

Want to make it a triple word score (for all you Scrabble players out there), and multiply your courage? Try these three things:

1. Think of the things for which you're grateful, which also inspire awe in you: someone's profound kindness, a small child, a sunrise, rainstorm, or natural beauty that stops the world for a moment. Awe is an emotion opposite to ego, and it expands our sphere of caring.

2. Take a few moments to savor the image, helping it sink into your psyche (and nervous system). Rick Hanson's work, Taking in the Good, shows the multiple benefits to our well-being from savoring positive experiences.

3. Share your gratitude with those you love. Gratitude has a multitude of well-documented benefits, one of which is that it helps release oxytocin, which fosters connection to others and slows our stress response.

In honor of the new year, I'm giving thanks for the profound fact that I'm here, and here at a moment in history where we have the choice and tools to respond in ways that expand our humanity, and possibly our human future on this planet.

What are you thankful for?