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This topic hits close to home for me.
I spent the month of September 2019 in the hospital recovering from brain surgery. During that month, there was one mantra that the nurses kept repeating to me, over and over, every day:
“The brain is plastic.”
I didn’t necessarily believe them, but I did what they told me, and clearly, it worked. I was able to “re-wire” the parts of my brain that were injured in surgery and regain the abilities I’d lost, including memory and balance. Two-plus years later, those abilities remain intact.
Now, not everyone has such a dramatic need to understand how neuroplasticity can work for them.
But research shows that everyone can put neuroplasticity to work to reduce stress, control harmful thinking, and generally improve their satisfaction with life.
Here’s what you need to know.
Our thoughts can change our brains…
Neuroplasticity is, quite simply, the brain’s ability to change.
Microscopic changes occur in the brain’s structure instantaneously as we think, feel, choose, and experience things.
According to cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, “the brain is not a fixed lump of matter delivering genetically preprogrammed instructions to the body.
“Rather, it’s an intensely responsive, intricately complex, and constantly changing system of cells. And we, using our mind, cause these neuroplastic changes.”
There’s your first lesson in neuroplasticity. It’s our thinking, the choices we make about what and how to think and handle things, that causes changes in our brains. We are in charge.
… for better OR for worse
Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive coach, explains this concept further.
“Everything that we repeat or that has strong emotional intensity gets further embedded into our brain pathways, whether it’s dwelling on negative thoughts or over-writing old unwanted behaviors with new, desired behaviors.”
In other words, neuroplastic changes can either be beneficial or hold us back. The choice is ours.
How to harness the power of neuroplasticity
Dr. Leaf believes that, by managing our thoughts, we can direct our neuroplasticity toward more positive outcomes in our lives.
She has formulated a five-step process for restructuring your brain so that energy moves in a more positive direction.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re trying to reduce feelings of anxiety. These are the steps to take…
1. Gather awareness. Meditation, a mindful diet and exercise are some ways to become more aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
2. Reflect. Ask yourself “why” questions, for example, “Why is my stomach hurting when I think about that?”
3. Write. After the “heavy lifting” of the first two steps, grab a pen and paper (NOT a keyboard) and write down all your thoughts. You might still feel anxious about them, but that anxiety is being released from your body.
In clinical trials, Dr. Leaf actually saw the telomere length of her subjects increase after writing down their thoughts. Telomeres are the structures at the ends of our chromosomes that protect us from premature aging and stress.
4. Reconceptualize. Look at what you’ve written and consider how you can see things more objectively. Tell yourself a different story. “See it differently so your story builds resilience,” says Dr. Leaf.
With time and practice, you’ll be able to feel more in charge of your thoughts, rather than automatically being overwhelmed by emotions.
5. Active reach. Take what you’ve written and reconceptualized, and find a simple action that you will take each time those thoughts and feelings appear. For example, you might promise yourself to take three deep, slow breaths when anxious thoughts or feelings arise.
One note: this process is not meant to be completed in a day.
Science tells us that it takes 21 days to break a habit, and at least 63 days to “rewire” your brain for a new behavior. So be patient with yourself. The important thing is taking the first step.
Editor’s note: While you’re doing all the right things to protect your brain as you age, make sure you don’t make the mistake 38 million Americans do every day — by taking a drug that robs them of an essential brain nutrient! Click here to discover the truth about the Cholesterol Super-Brain!
Why mind-management is the solution to cleaning up your mental mess — White Paper by Dr. Caroline Leaf
Adult neuroplasticity: A new “cure” for major depression? — Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Yes, You Can Change Your Brain: How To Do It In 5 Steps, From A Neuroscientist — mindbodygreen.com