Change Your Brain by Changing Your Mind
Think different. Or as my old University (UEA) asserts in it’s motto, Do Different. Consider the possibility (and joy) of overcoming your fears of change or your worries and doubts about life, by using your powerful mind. When you change your mind, you can change your brain. You might well agree that the things you learned earlier in life, are the ones that are hardest to change. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks is a saying for a reason. Have a read of my own design for flow diagram of quotations, which I sometimes use with clients to understand the change process:
I love these quotations and they all reflect an attitudinal shift needed for change. The longer I live, the more I realise the impact of attitude on life. Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. Attitude is everything.The mysteries of our attitudes, how the mind and brain understands them, are many and very complex. Neuroscience is just beginning to unravel some of these challenges and is beginning to suggest what we can do different.
Apparently worry (about change and everything) is an evolutionary strategy expressed as an emotion, when we feel threatened. In a recent New York Times article, David Ropeik makes the case that most of us don’t know how to worry. Although we often underestimate how risky something really is, we are even more likely to overestimate the dangers of taking actions that would actually help us. In other words, when it comes to evaluating the risk / benefit ratio of our actions, we do a pretty poor job. Ropeik argues that our brains are wired to worry first and think second. This quote from the work of NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux sums it up in a nutshell: connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
In fact your brain is wired to produce change, a constant in the brain, as it is in life. We know change involves learning, and all learning generates change in the brain. When you seek to replace a behaviour, your actions produce neurochemicals, cytokines and molecular changes in neurones. As messengers, neurones communicate by transmitting electrical signals along their axons and dendrites, and these signals are activated by the neurotransmitters in the synapses. Your brain and body is a sophisticated communication network. Your subconscious mind, the mind of your body, manages all of the systemic processes that you do not have to think about, as well as all of your personal requests, wants or commands, both conscious and subconscious.
I think that everyone experiences painful change (trauma) at some point in their lives. From death, breakups, marriage, divorce, job changes, launching a business, redundancy, money, dishonesty, tax, moving house or retirement, change has the capacity to scare us even when it is not real. Whether it’s kicking a bad habit, shifting a business focus, changing behaviours, changing company culture, or trying to change the world, change can be very challenging. Perhaps it’s time to improve our ability to defeat the traditional challenges of handling change. We can learn to override our default setting through the understanding of neuroplasticity.Neuroplasticity is the mind’s ability to change the brain. It reverses scientific dogma which held that mental experiences result only from physical goings-on in the brain and we can’t do much about it. But extensive studies by neuroscientists confirm that our mental machinations do alter the physical structure of our brain matter.
An excellent view of how we can unlock our brains through neuroplasticity is given byJeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. He is an American psychiatrist and researcher in the field of neuroplasticity and its application to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which is an extreme form of worrying. Brainlock is a term coined by Schwartz to describe obsessive-compulsive behaviour and to describe a treatment plan he published in his 1997 book Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviour.In the book he claims he doesn’t use drugs to treat patients. He teaches them to rewire their brain by changing how they think. He created a successful four-step approach for OCD which can adapted for fear of change:
- Relabel. Relabel the obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges as obsessions and compulsions, not as real thoughts. An unwanted thought could be relabeled “false message” or “brain glitch.” You step back and say, “This is just my brain sending me a false message.” This sounds easy, but it is very tricky to master. Focusing on something completely different when your brain is sending long-embedded directions with overwhelming force, is incredibly difficult.
- Reattribute. Reattribute the obsessive thoughts to a brain malfunction called OCD. This second step answers the question, “Why do these thoughts coming back?” The answer is that the brain is misfiring, stuck in gear, creating mental noise, and sending false messages. In other words, if you understand why you’re getting those old thoughts, eventually you’ll be able to say, “Oh, that’s just a brain glitch.” That raises the natural next question: What can you do about it?
- Refocus. Refocus on a wholesome, productive activity for at least fifteen minutes. The third step is where the toughest work is, because it’s the actual changing of behaviour. You have to do another behaviour instead of the old one. Having recognised the problem for what it is and why it’s occurring, you now have to replace the old behaviour with new things to do. This is where the change in brain chemistry occurs, because you are creating new patterns, new mindsets. By refusing to be misled by the old messages, by understanding they aren’t what they tell you they are, your mind is now the one in charge of your brain.
- Revalue. Revalue the entire obsession and compulsion group as having no useful meaning in your life. It all comes together in this fourth step, which is the natural outcome of the first three. With a consistent way to replace the old behaviour with the new, you begin to see old patterns as simple distractions. You devalue them as being completely worthless. Eventually the old thoughts begin to fade in intensity, the brain works better, and the automatic process in the brain begins to start working properly.
Some may argue that we are hard wired to worry, as an evolutionarily strategy for survival and we can’t change. However, what makes us distinctly human is precisely our ability to use our cortex to override the emotional storms that brew in our subcortical brain regions. This storm causes us to dwell so much on our past that we forget to live our present. Holding onto something, whether it is a person, feelings or expectations, only creates a barrier in our life that stops us from moving forward.
By controlling your worries, you’ll not only make better decisions, but feel better because you do. Maybe we can retrain our brain by invoking the Apple tagline: Think different. Then do different.