, , , ,

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.

Why do we worry what people think about us?

Why do we care what people think about us?

Why does it matter that someone seems to speak badly of us, in spite of our best efforts to please? Or appear to ignore us when we’ve gone the distance for them?

That hurts.

Have you met someone who seems to easily blow right past these kinds of things? They cavalierly throw their head back, shake their fist at the sky in blind anger and say they don’t care at all what people think of them. You can watch the back of their head whilst they walk away.

I don’t believe ‘em.

I think they do care; I’m pretty sure they care a lot. But I think their mojo is that they’ve learned to manage their own perceptions of other people’s actions.

How do they do that?

Here’s the deal: It’s not what people think about you that matters. It’s what you think people think about you.

It’s more about you and less about them.

Don’t you just hate that?

So how do we get there? How do we know what’s for real so we can move past it?

Acknowledge the pain.

If you feel hurt, then you are hurt. That’s really okay. Our feelings are an indicator of what needs our attention. Just because someone says they “didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

Your feelings are your experience. No one else can tell you you’re not feeling something or shouldn’t feel something (my personal favorite).

You are the sole authority on what and how you feel.

BUT you can’t get stuck here. If you step out of the mud for a minute, then you’ll realize that you can actually decide what you believe about the source of that pain.

Challenge your perceptions.

You don’t have to take everything that is said or done to you at face value. Just because words were formed and projected into the air towards you doesn’t mean they 1) were well thought out 2) contain any factual truth and 3) really have anything to do with you.

Put your muddy finger on the pause button for a second and ask yourself, “What else could be going on here? What could I be missing? Where’s the remote?”

This can take some of the emotional edge off.

  • Maybe you just heard it the wrong way (clarification never hurts).
  • Maybe they’re a jerk and treat everyone that way (then in this particular case it’s not about you at all, yay!).
  • Maybe, like Wonder Woman, you just don’t have all the information about who you really are, but they see it and they don’t like it and want to throw lightning at you!

Get creative but come up with something that’s less about you being a horrible person and more about you being the victor in your own life story.

It may sound like denial, but in this case it might be the best way to move on from people who may have nothing invested in you anyway.

Recognize that we all have different ways of perceiving the world.

I think social media has more than proven this point. With all of the ways we can now share our unique perspectives, along with our food choices, you really have no way to know where people are truly coming from.

Unless you ask them, of course. And even then, you still won’t have the complete picture because you’re not in their head.

You are having your own undeniable experience, and other people are having theirs, too.

Someone who hurts you is responding based on their own perceptions of the world. Their own upbringing, their own personal models of how to relate to people, and their own feelings of inadequacy.

Just like you.

It’s not that people always have it in for you. For most people, it’s just that they’re scared, too.

Don’t underestimate the power of fear. It makes people do some pretty stupid things.

I say this all the time, but don’t be afraid to run interference on your emotions.

Instead of letting your mind run away with all the reasons someone doesn’t like you, challenge those reasons and design a different perspective for yourself.

How to stop chewing your cud

Do you ever have days when you just can’t stop thinking about something that really got under your skin? Maybe it was something that happened yesterday, or maybe even 12 years ago.

Or maybe it’s just a thought you’ve always believed about yourself.

Like you’re not smart, or you’ll never amount to anything.

And no one wants to hang out with you.

And that’s why you’re not in a meaningful relationship.

Which means you’ll always be alone.

So you may as well stay home tonight.

And people who are alone don’t amount to anything.

Aaaand we’re right back where we started.

Let the chewing begin.

Welcome to the downward spiral of a dank little mental process called “rumination.”

Technically and all scienc-ey, rumination is the leisurely and regurgitative digestive process our four-stomached bovine friends must endure to better process their food. Apparently after enjoying their breakfast from Chik Fil-A, they must bring it back up and just keep on chewing.

Charming.

Mental rumination, however, can be a sure fire catalyst for depression.

Every emotion we experience starts as a little seed of a thought that we entertain. If it’s a healthy thought, it leads to feeling happy or content, which leads to smiling, laughing and other positive behaviors.

Life is good. Chips and salsa all around.

But an unhealthy thought we tend to chew on over and over and over. We don’t challenge the thought or look for any evidence of it actually being valid or true. Instead we entertain it just long enough to let it lead to another, more unhealthy thought.

Which takes us down the path to what’s now a damaging thought.

Keep in mind, we’re not looking for a solution when we do this; just focusing completely on rehashing the bad parts.

We keep chewing that bad boy until we’re now furiously obsessing over what’s happened to us, something we probably had no control over anyway.

And now we’re angry, sad or maybe even feeling hopeless, the diagnosable stuff of depression.

Swallow. That. Cud.

While cud chewing is healthy for cows, it’s a maladaptive pattern for those of us with just one stomach. In order to stop ruminating, you have to deal with the thoughts you keep coughing up.

Write down the very first unhealthy thought, and be a detective. See if you can find evidence of its truth.

If it’s true, fine. Make a plan to address it. You might be alone not because you’re a loser but because you really haven’t put yourself out there. It’s hard not to be alone when there are no other people around. Just sayin’. Find ways to engage more with others.

If the thought’s not true, find a way to reframe or restate that thought in a healthier, more positive way before it gets you all worked up. Yes, you appear to be alone right now but you have a plan to join your church’s young adult group so you can meet people whose interests you share. And there will probably be pizza.

Either way, you’re processing the thought just the one time.

With the time you save, you can then use your new healthy thoughts to launch you into healthy and productive actions.

Is this something you’ve struggled with? Please do share.

#alwaysbelearnin

#thoughtsfeelingsactions