The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” just isn’t so. Neuroplasticity research now proves that you can rewire your brain to experience greater happiness, success, health, love and well-being. So no matter what your situation is — overcoming depression, a new diet or escaping a bad relationship — here are seven ways to outsmart your brain for a better quality of life.
So what exactly is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout life because of environment, behavior, thinking and emotions. For years, scientists thought that the brain stopped developing during childhood. But today we now know that the brain continues to make connections between neurons throughout our lives. While the science of neuroplasticity is not new, the ability to see into the brain via MRI confirms the brain’s amazing ability to change continually, regardless of age.
Stop unwanted thoughts, or “relabel” them
“Relabel” a thought, feeling or behavior as something else, because an unwanted thought is really just a “false message” or “brain glitch” that’s taking you away from your long-term goals and values, says Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in “4 Steps to Changing Your Brain for Good.”
If you’re feeling really uptight or anxious, over, let’s say, a craving or even a canceled date, stop what you’re doing, and take at least five deep breaths to stop your brain’s “alarm” reaction. Take note of your actions and what you’re thinking and how they’re making you feel.
This trains you to recognize and identify what’s real and what’s not. Refuse to be tricked by your negative thinking. Step back and say, “This is just my brain giving me a false message.”
Negative thinking is a barrier to self-change, suggests Dr. Steven M. Melemis, PhD of CognitiveTherapyGuide.org. All-or-nothing thinking is the most common type of negative thinking. It’s also the main cause of anxiety, depression and addiction. If you frequently tell yourself you have to do things perfectly because anything less than perfect is failure, that’s all-or-nothing thinking. Identify and let go of negative thinking, advises the Mayo Clinic.
- Stop seeing everything as either good or bad.
- Avoid thoughts like, if you’re not perfect, well then, you’re a total failure.
- Not everything is black and white; there is always a gray area or middle ground.
Realizing the all-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion will stop you from thinking, “If I’m not perfect, I’m not worthy.”
Change your perspective, or “reframe”
Feeling something is wrong doesn’t necessarily mean that something is actually wrong, Schwartz offers. Sometimes we believe that what we feel must be true automatically. For instance, if we feel stupid, then we must be stupid. Don’t distort your feelings and jump to conclusion that what you’re feeling is the truth.
We tend to assume that our unhealthy emotions naturally reflect the way things really are. “I feel it, so it must be true.” Not necessarily. Change your perspective: “It’s not me, just my brain.” Keep in mind, the thoughts you are thinking may not be reality, just how your brain is processing it.
Change your focus, or “refocus”
Changing your focus from a negative, inadequate response to a positive response rewires your brain in a way that’s beneficial to your well-being. So if you’re anxious or nervous, simply refocusing and directing your attention from what you’re fretting about stops you from acting impulsively, and instead gets you thinking in a more constructive way. It’s actually through the refocusing of the brain that you rewire it and outsmart it.
“Revalue” your negative experience
In revaluing, you see your thoughts, urges and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that just are not true. These thoughts don’t need to be taken seriously or paid attention to. In fact, giving into the urge, craving or negative thinking makes the underlying brain circuitry stronger.
Revaluing a negative thought is a deeper form of relabeling, Schwartz notes. You get a sense of knowing that the negative feelings you’re experiencing are really destructive brain messages. So dismiss these deceptive brain messages and go do something productive instead.
I will power, I won’t power, I want power
When most people think of willpower, they think it’s the ability to resist temptation. But it’s actually three powers, says Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and willpower expert at Stanford University. If you’re trying to work toward a goal, rely on three strengths: “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power.
- “I will” power is the ability to remember that you want the consequences of doing this difficult thing.
- “I won’t” power is what we typically think of as willpower — the ability to resist temptation.
- “I want” power is a clear memory of what you want most.
If you’re relying on “I won’t smoke that cigarette,” you may not be strong enough to resist. So you’re better off not focusing on what “you won’t” do. Instead, work on your two other strengths. Reframe the situation and use your “I will” power as in, “I will replace cigarettes with carrot sticks.” Because your brain has more energy to choose what you want rather than what you don’t want.
Live according to your true self
The most important thing you can do for yourself and your brain is to live according to your true self. That means “seeing yourself for who you really are, based on your sincere striving to embody the values and achieve the goals you truly believe in,” writes Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding in “You Are Not Your Brain.”
The question is how do we become our true self and live authentically. The most important thing you can do to live according to your true self is to pursue the goals that are right for you, says Bella DePaulo, PhD, from Psychology Today. If you choose wrong and chase goals that don’t really reflect who you are or what you care about, then even if you achieve your goals, you’ll never really be happy or fulfilled.
But to do this, you must get in touch with your emotions and needs from a loving and nurturing perspective, which is how your attentive inner mind sees you.
Outsmarting your brain is not about being perfect. It’s really all about changing negative thinking patterns and rewiring those glitches programmed by deceptive thinking. Learning to be your most authentic self — happy, fulfilled and confident — takes some practice. What you focus on, you become.
Is it possible to free ourselves from destructive thoughts and actions, and to change bad habits for good? Of course it is.
Katherine Marko is a freelance writer, author and blog creator. Her areas of expertise include food, health, style, beauty, business and nutrition. Marko holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a diploma in photography, graphic design and marketing, and certification in esthetics.