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Science has confirmed, without a doubt, that your brain is shaped by your life. Your experiences, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings literally, physically change the form and function of your brain, a concept known as neuroplasticity, from the day you’re born until the day you die.
We all come into this world with the same basic brain structure, but as you go through your life, just doing the stuff you normally do, and repeatedly activate the same circuits in your brain over and over, your brain changes to reflect these patterns.
Mental States Become Wired Into Your Brain
If you stress out about every little thing, your brain is going to forge and strengthen connections, over time, making it reactive and anxious. If you expect the worst in every situation and are a pro at spotting the downside in all cases, you’re reinforcing this kind of negative thinking in your brain every time you engage in it.
One study confirmed that depressed people had more activity in areas of their brains corresponding to pessimistic thinking, meaning that a depressed brain expects the worst, which only increases that brain activity and strengthens those neural connections.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes, “One way or another, negative mental states can easily become negative neural traits.” He continues:
Feeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious cycle.
As long as you keep going about your normal routine, thinking the same old thoughts and doing the same things you’ve always done, you’re supporting those existing patterns in your brain and creating more of the same in your mind and life.
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Henry Ford’s famous quote holds true for your brain:
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve alway got.
Your Brain And Body Are A Feedback Loop
Fundamentally, a depressed, anxious, or pessimistic brain looks just like a happy, positive, joyful brain. The difference exists in which brain circuits are routinely activated in specific sequences resulting in mental traits in that person. The stimulation of particular neurons causes the release of certain neurotransmitters, which control almost all your bodily functions. This then triggers a cascade of physical reactions, like altered heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, and sweating.
The activity in your brain also changes based on what your body is doing. So, as your body changes, your brain changes, and as your brain changes, your body changes. It’s a continual feedback loop that works both ways.
Information coming from your senses not only causes chemical reactions in your brain, it also influences how your brain thinks and feels. Your brain first interprets the input received from the world around it emotionally, and then adds subjective material, made up of beliefs, memories, and experiences, to produce feelings.
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Feelings and emotions are two sides of the same coin, but they’re not the same thing.
Emotions occur in your mind, and feelings are the language of the body. (See: What’s the Difference Between Feelings And Emotions ) So, if you change what’s happening in your brain, it can alter how you feel, physically and mentally, very quickly. In fact, your thoughts precipitate changes all of the way down to your cells and genes.
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Ways To Work With Your Thoughts
Neuroscience confirms that your personality creates your personal reality. Your thoughts, behaviors, habits, and emotions form your identity, shape your brain, and show up in your body. In You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, Joe Dizpensa writes:
Ninety-five percent of who you are by the time you’re 35 years old is a set of memorized behaviors, skills, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes that functions like a subconscious computer program.
It’s commonly said that most of the thoughts you have today are the same ones you had yesterday and that the conscious mind’s small capacity is constantly working against this predominant unconscious programming, which is largely made up of wounds, fears, and negative memories and experiences from your past.
To change the automatic, subconscious script playing in your head will feel like trying to swim upstream at first, but with persistence and time, it can be done. Some ways to do this are:
Byron Katie’s The Work. The Work consists of four questions you use to do self-analysis around a thought and a turn around. The questions are:
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without the thought?
After you’ve analyzed a thought with the four questions, you turn your thinking around. Each turn around is an opportunity to experience the opposite perspective of your original statement. Katie says the turnarounds are “the prescriptions for happiness.” They worked wonders for me.
Jeffrey Schwartz’ four step therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) works for changing any thought pattern: addictive, self-critical, negative, etc… His four-step therapy is outlined in his book Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior and has become an established treatment for OCD. The four steps are: relabel; reattribute; refocus and revalue. When I was originally learning to change my whole way of being, I had reminders of the four steps posted everywhere — on my refrigerator, in my meditation corner, on my bathroom mirror and even on the dashboard of my car.
The Emotional Guidance Scale
Abraham-Hicks has an emotional guidance scale which ranges from Joy/Appreciation/Love being at the top as the best with Fear/Grief/Depression at the very bottom. The exercise asks you to determine where you are on the emotional scale about a troublesome subject and choose a thought higher on the scale to promote better feelings and a sense of peace. It doesn’t work to try to zoom from a bottom feeling all the way to the top. The idea is to choose something believable which makes you feel a little bit better and takes you a few notches up the scale. From there, you reach for better thoughts and feelings and keep moving up.
Come Into The Present
Several times throughout the day, especially when you’re anxious or having distressing thoughts, bring your awareness into the here and now and realize that you’re alright regardless of whatever else is going on in the world or what you’re thinking about. (Read more: Alright Right Now)
Notice The Good
No matter what your current state of mind or the immediate circumstances, there’s always good to be found around you – even if it’s something as small as flipping a switch and lights coming on or the sun is shining. There was good in your past, there’s good in the present, and there will be good in your future. You have to notice and feel it. (Read More: Look For The Good And You’ll Find It)
In your mind, see mental images of how you would like to be, situations you want to create, or how you would like events to play out and really let yourself feel the accompanying positive emotions. Your body and nervous system are constantly reacting to your thoughts whether it’s to your benefit or not. Use it for your good. (Read more: Picture This)
Practice meditation daily to strengthen your mental health and feeling of connectedness. Meditation becomes a place to work with thoughts and emotions and for self inquiry. A meditation practice can actually physically change your brain so that it’s calmer all the time and has been connected to lower rates of anxiety and depression. If you already have a meditation practice, great. If not, start one. You can learn how here.
Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Mindfulness helps teach you to look at your thoughts objectively, not react to them, and then consciously choose how to respond.
Change your thoughts. Change your life.