Take Care Tuesday!
Neuroplasticity and Well-Being
“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
– Henry Thoreau
Do you have behaviors, reactions, or habits that you wish you could change?
I’ll freely admit I’ve had a few road rage reactions in the past. And there were times when I lost my patience and overreacted to my son when he was young and exerting his independence. In the past, I used food as a source of comfort, to buffer for my negative emotions and self-doubt. All of us have things we wish we could change about our behavior and how we respond to situations in our life.
Have you found yourself saying, “that’s just who I am” or “I can never change”? Perhaps you find yourself frequently:
- Personalizing – blaming yourself when things go wrong
- Polarizing – Seeing things only as good or bad, no shades of gray or middle ground
- Magnifying – Focusing on the bad or negative but dismissing the positive in any situation
- Catastrophizing – Expecting the worst; one negative event leads to a cascade of increasingly bad outcomes in your mind
Here’s the good news …
🧠 You can CHANGE the way you respond, react, and handle stress and triggers. While these traits are formed deep inside our brain … and how we react or respond is often developed in childhood … they are not permanent. With mindful, persistent effort, we can change our brains.
Neuroplasticity – Our Brains Are Malleable!
Neuroplasticity can help us more thoughtfully engage in activities that will contribute to our well-being–no matter our age. A neural pathway is a connection between neurons in your brain that elicits a response. Sometimes the response is desirable (good)! Sometimes the response isn’t very flattering (bad). If we repeatedly respond in the same way to stimuli, it becomes a habit. It’s like driving to work. Most of us drive the same route to work every day and eventually we can switch to autopilot. Sometimes we arrive at our destination totally unaware of how we got there! Now imagine there is a big construction project along your usual route to work and you’d like to avoid it. So, you purposefully change the route to work. But there will be times where you forget and go back on the old path That’s expected. But with repeated practice, your new route will become your routine! The same is true for our brains. You can build a new neuronal pathway, a new route. The more you practice, choosing to respond differently, using mindfulness and visualization techniques, the more it becomes a habit. This process of “re-wiring” our neuronal circuits is called neuroplasticity, which is:
“The capacity for learning and memory, and it enables mental and behavioral flexibility. Research has firmly established that the brain is a dynamic organ and can change its architecture throughout life, responding to experience by reorganizing connections—in short, by wiring and rewiring itself.” -Psychology Today
Years ago, scientist believed that after you reach adulthood, your brain didn’t produce new neurons. But this isn’t true! There are two major regions of the brain the continually give birth to new neurons (throughout our lives) in a process called neurogenesis.
- Hippocampus (long-term and spatial memory hub)
- Cerebellum (coordination and muscle memory hub).
Granule cells have the highest rate of neurogenesis, and the hippocampus and cerebellum are packed, full of granule cells!
The number and strength of the neural connections in our brain effect our emotional, mental, and physical functioning. Anxiety and depression arise from repetitive thinking patterns that become habitual in nature. If your brain has been slowly wired over time to be tense, anxious, stressed, and depressed, then surely it can be re-wired to diminish and perhaps eliminate those unfavorable patterns of thinking. Anxiety is an overreaction to a perceived threat. Stress, fear, anger, sadness, and many other emotions are all normal and appropriate. These emotions lead us to experience the broad spectrum of highs and lows in life. They can help us to take action! However, when we are stuck in a habitual loop of negative emotions, that’s not healthy. But we can retrain our brain using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Changing our identity and our belief about ourselves is the quickest and most effective way to change our habits”
– James Clear
Pause and Reflect:
- How can you reframe your language to be kinder and more supportive to yourself? To remember that you are human and acknowledge things as they are without escalating emotions?
- As you go about your day, notice when you are saying harsh words to yourself. Try to reframe your language to be more self-compassionate.
Retrain the Brain – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT can modify neural circuits involved in the regulation of negative emotions. Here are some common techniques to help you respond differently to triggers.
- Notice Self Talk Traps. Negative predications can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you find yourself thinking negatively, reframe your thoughts to be more balanced and positive.
- Prove yourself wrong. When your brain tells you, “You can’t do X”, look at the behavior change or goal as an experiment and a challenge. Each time you successfully prove your negative predictions wrong, you’ll train your brain to see yourself in a different light.
- Use a mantra. Adopt a short statement or phrase that helps tune out and turn off the negativity. Like “You Got This” or “I am Enough”
- Check in with your emotions. Notice when you are feeling stressed, anxious, and afraid.
Follow the Listen, Learn and Think Model
- Is it mostly positive or negative?
- What events, people or scenarios encourage positivity vs negative self-talk?
- What would a friend or loved one say if they knew you talked negatively to yourself?
- Can you see any common threads in your self-talk?
- What thoughts come to mind most often?
- Why do they arise?
- How does negative self-talk hold you back from goal achievement?
- How would you feel if you shifted from negative to positive self-talk?
- What could you achieve if you practiced more positive self-talk?
- Might I be overreacting to a situation?
- Are my thoughts and conclusions based on fact or opinion? Whose opinion?
- Am I making assumptions?
- How accurate is this thought?
Synergy with Exercise
Just like becoming physically fit, consistency is key. Build your mental muscle. The more you practice thinking realistically (but positively), the more you build new neuronal pathways. Physical exercise enhances our mental clarity while lowering stress and anxiety.
Seena L. Haines serves as the Professor and Chair, Department of Pharmacy Practice within the School of Pharmacy and the Lead Faculty- Well-Being and Resilience Champion, Office of Well-Being, University of Mississippi Medical Center.
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