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You can change your brain

You can change your brain.

This is your brain.

This is your brain on drugs.

Do you remember this commercial from the 80s?

The message was that your brain was fragile, like an egg. Doing drugs would crack your brain open and fry it like an IHOP breakfast (they still do breakfast, right? 🍳)

A simple and powerful message. How could that not be true?

Anyone with an addiction history will tell you there can be long-term effects from substance use, even well into recovery.

The overarching message driving this campaign was that you were born with only so many brain cells.

If you kill them, through drugs or alcohol, for example, you don’t ever get them back. One blackout from a night of partying meant millions of brain cells vanished into thin air, just like that.

I’m not sure exactly how many brain cells I was born with, but I’m not keen on losing any more than I have to. As a teenager with giant winged hair, a crisply popped-up collar and a conceivably big future ahead of me, I received that message loud and clear.

Not true.

Thanks to some diligent science people, however, we now know that message was wrong. Because your body was fearfully and wonderfully made, your brain can change and compensate for many things life throws at it.

Your brain, it turns out, is highly flexible and constantly works to adapt to the new requirements placed on it. The clinical term for this is neuroplasticity, and you see it all the time in real life.

  • Recovery after a stroke is the brain adapting and making new connections to relearn some basic functions.
  • Sudden loss of hearing in one ear may strengthen hearing in the other ear to compensate for the loss.
  • Phantom limb sensation experienced by amputees is plasticity at work.

Apparently your brain learns how to rewire itself, change directions and find alternate pathways all the time.

Like MacGyver trying to get out of a locked basement with a roll of duct tape, a Craftsman screwdriver, and a crooked smile.

But plasticity isn’t just limited to injuries or damage. There’s a very practical side to this that can help you in your daily biz.

Your brain can also adapt to new ways of thinking and behaving.

You might think you can’t change some of your behaviors related to depression or anxiety, but you can set up your brain to help you be more successful in your efforts.

The patterns and thinking habits that have been with you since you started using reason and logic as a wee youngster are ingrained as pathways in your brain. It’s what you learned from your earły environmental influences.  It’s just how you’ve “always been.”

You can play a role in getting your brain to change those pathways in a few simple ways.

What you pay attention to

What you focus on is a stimulus to your brain.

Think about that for a second.

Every time you give your attention to something, you are stimulating your brain toward some action.

You can’t choose the thoughts that pop in your head. But you can choose how long you focus on those thoughts and how you decide to handle them.

Sorry, that’s just how it is.

If you are struggling with depression, and you focus on a negative thought or situation, your brain just keeps going down the path you take it.

If you’ve been struggling for a while, your brain doesn’t have to work that hard to take you down the familiar path. It’s been in this part of the labyrinth before.

Your brain likes this path of least resistance because it can conserve energy for something else.

But when you choose to focus on an adaptive thought, or a positive thought, your brain lights up. 💥 It now has to fire differently and make new neural connections to accommodate the new activity.

It’s like when you suddenly realize Google Maps is taking you on a detour and you don’t know where the next rest stop might be…and you just finished a Big Gulp. 🌊

In order to meet the new demand, your brain has to entertain the thought of a different path and determine what resources it needs to get there.

If you manage to keep your focus on more helpful, adaptive thoughts, your brain gets comfortable with that path and it’s easier to override the negative, now less used, paths.

And you just mastered a new thinking skill that will help improve your mood.

Boom. 👊 You didn’t even have to leave the couch for that one.

Move your body

I know I bring this up a lot, but you have to move your body every day to even have a shot at feeling better. You have to disturb your homeostasis, to quote the science people.

Here’s another compelling reason why.

Exercise prevents shrinkage  😳

If you’re still alive, then your brain is aging.

If you’re not exercising, then your brain is shrinking. The gray matter, the part we laymen call “brain,” is reducing in volume.

Exercise increases the volume of gray matter in your brain and reverses that shrinkage.

Apparently size does matter. 😆

This gray matter growth also can contribute to the formation of new blood vessels.

And the pie de resistance: exercise can help your brain regenerate new cells, a process called neurogenesos.

So no more fried egg brain for you.

And all this adds up to improved cognitive function. Studies show one of the best ways to prevent age related cognitive decline is to exercise.

Higher intensity is best but anything will help.

So there you go. Time to take your shrinking brain to the gym.

Free your mind (and the rest will follow 🎶).

The research is still a little back and forth on this one, but meditation appears to have significant changes on the brain.

Apparently just one session can improve blood flow into the prefrontal cortex, which is where all your thinking and planning lives.

But over the long term, meditation may provoke some structural changes in the areas that regulate emotions and assist in learning and memory.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean a long, drawn out session. You can find a space somewhere in your day and meditate for just a few minutes. This can lower your fight or flight responses, which can help you manage anxiety and depression.

There are a gazillion meditation apps for your phone. Try one and see if it doesn’t improve your focus and increase your ability to handle the stuff in your day.

And remember, over time, your brain will come to consider this more calm, relaxed state as the norm.

Your brain is a marvelous machine.

You get to carry it around in your head all the time. Only you know what’s truly going on in there.

Please know that at the end of the day, you can change and control what you do with your marvelous brain. It can be shaped and molded to your specifications (within reason, your Highness).

Make an intentional and purposeful plan to change your brain and see what happens!

Some sources:

http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/brain-re-wires-itself-after-damage-246049

https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html

https://bigthink.com/mit-news/mit-scientists-discover-fundamental-rule-of-brain-plasticity

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/neuroplasticity

https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/20/self-directed-neuroplasticity-consciously-changing-your-brain-function/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5081452/#!po=2.50000

https://www.ausmed.com/articles/exercise-induced-neuroplasticity/

Newberg, A.B. , Wintering, N., Waldman, M.R., Amen, D., Khalsa, D.S., Alavi, A. (2010).Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators. Conscious Cogn. ;19(4):899-905.

Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W.(2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 30;191(1):36-43.

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3 ways to help you bend and flex with your life

How many goals did you set this year to improve your resilience?

*Crickets.*

Not at the top of your list?

Admittedly, resilience gets crowded out by the more action-y stuff we focus on as the new year starts.

  • We set goals to lose weight (again).
  • We make plans to improve our professional skills, or find that dream job.
  • You Type A folks may even be launching a life plan this year to go after like, you know, everything, in your whole entire life. (That sounds easy enough.)

We almost never consider our own resilience, much less how to practice and use it when we need it.

What is resilience, anyway?

We tend to think of resilience as the ability to bounce back from a challenge, and that’s partly true.

  • When life knocks you down, resilience gives you the wherewithal to get back up.
  • When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade (if you have enough lemons thrown at you to make a decent amount of lemonade, you might be having a rough go at it, just sayin’…).

But resilience also is being mentally and emotionally prepared to identify the resources available to you when things get challenging.

If you’re stressed, tired, and full of negative thoughts, it’s hard to care about finding creative ways to get past a difficult situation.

Resilience then, can be more of a mindset that allows you to see the path forward and empowers you to actually walk down that path.

And, as with many things in life, it’s better for you if you build that mindset ahead of time. #sorrythatsjusthowitis

So, how do you build resilience?

The best part is that many of the things we already know about a healthy lifestyle are the very things that build resilience. It’s like life skills double-dipping.

Here are three really good ones you can practice every day:

1. Exercise

Exercise is a most outstanding way to build resilience because it generates blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe, right behind your forehead. The frontal lobe handles things like planning, logic and organization. These come in handy when you need to make a healthy decision.

Exercise also relieves the negative emotions related to stress. After a long workday, just a 10-minute walk with your dog can boost your mood for several hours (and probably your dog’s mood, too).

I’ll bet you make better decisions about your life when you can stay clear-headed, relaxed and in a positive mood.

And the best part is, you don’t need special skills. You just have to move.

Can you move? Carry on…

2. Be quiet

Quiet time lets us focus on our thoughts and try to figure stuff out.

Thanks to our devices and a limitless supply of entertainment in almost all areas of our lives, we no longer have to suffer the plight of being bored or reflective.

Our brains and souls are drinking daily from a firehose of data with little time to figure out if any of it even makes sense (spoiler alert: most of it doesn’t).

And studies are bearing out that our marvelous brains are starting to notice. Our daily experience now includes:

  • reduced memory and attention spans,
  • constant dopamine rushes from social media interactions, and
  • reduced productivity from multi-tasking.

Finding some time to step away, in some way, for a few minutes each day allows mental space for creativity and problem solving.

You can call it mindfulness or a spiritual practice.

Just carve out 15 quiet minutes for yourself to:

  • Pray,
  • Let your mind wander,
  • Breathe deeply,
  • Ask yourself questions about what you’re feeling,
  • Journal,
  • Draw, or
  • Let the sacred words of wiser ones than you pour into your soul.

Having said that, resilience does require some boundaries on all that thinking.

3. What are you thinking?

While we can’t help the thoughts that pop in to our minds, we do have complete control over what we allow to roil and take root.

Allowing unchallenged thoughts to linger can quickly become rumination, obsessing over the same negative thoughts until you make yourself feel really bad.

Like a cow chewing its cud.

Rumination is one of the hardest thinking habits to change.

  • It’s never forward-focused.
  • It always dwells on past wrongs or failures.
  • It’s a natural predator of resilience.

Resilience, however, requires you to

  • Find your strengths,
  • Look for possibilities, and
  • Focus on what you can bring to the situation.

So in order to bolster your resilience, you’re going to have to do a whole lot better than rumination.

Start being the gatekeeper for your marvelous brain.

How much news do you consume?

What’s more backwards-focused than the news? Its very nature is things that have happened in the past.

The news is now particularly negative and vicious, and it feeds many of our anxieties about what’s not working in our lives.

Take a week off from it and see if it doesn’t change how you think.

What positive, forward-focused things are you reading or listening to?

Focus on material that will build your skills, build your faith, or help you build a resilient attitude about life.

Self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry. There’s something out there for what you need.

I like listening to motivational speaker Les Brown because he reminds me that I am responsible for my own change, which is a little scary, but that I can totally do it. Yes!

Who do you pay attention to?

You’ve heard it before. You are the sum total of the five people you associate with.

What do your five talk about? Do their comments and conversations build people up, or tear down?

Do they always focus on what’s gone wrong? And who’s gone wrong?

This will have an effect on your thinking, I promise.

You may need to upgrade your five.

Resilience is a marathon.

Keep in mind that building resilience is a lifelong endeavor.

You will never do the end zone dance of resilience, and there’s no Golden Globe for the Most Resilient Performance in a Life Drama (or Comedy).

So, go ahead, put resilience on your list of goals to crush in the new year, but you won’t be able to really check it off.

I know, that’s annoying.

What you can check off, though, is the fact that you are helping yourself a little bit each day to build the courage to face your challenges and take action.

That’s golden.

Spend this year improving your ability to bend and flex with your life.

#alwaysbeflexin

#alwaysbelearnin

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