Mental Health Monday: an Introduction to Neuroscience

Spring offers a wealth of powerful metaphors that can be applied to our inner lives.The one that strikes me every year as the most powerful is the idea of growth contained within a hard outer shell. Seeds and eggs both possess the ability to become much greater than their contents. So too do human beings. As today is the first official day of spring, it seems the appropriate time to begin a series of posts dealing with personal growth.

As human beings, we all come into the world with an amazing amount of potential. If you’ve ever spent enough time around children, this becomes incredibly apparent. We are born with an innate capacity for growth and learning. So what happens to that potential? It gradually becomes locked away. Modern life is full of restrictions that we learn to adopt as we age. From our parents to school, we learn what is normal and unconsciously seek it because of the way that our brains our wired.

Neuroscience in a Nutshell

Our brains are much like biological computers. We enter the world with blank hard drives ready to have the latest software and apps installed on them. Installation happens when anything is repeated often enough. Our brains are wired to absorb and process sensory information, combining the input into new neural pathways. This is the basic mechanism behind learning to walk. It’s also the same mechanism behind the generational transmission of abuse and neglect, subsequent revictimization, addiction, and most of life’s other mental health ills. And the younger we are, the more this process is hard at work in our grey matter. Think for a moment about an infant. Besides eating, sleeping, and growing, most of their time is spent observing the world around them and processing sensory information. Their little brains are soaking up information like a sponge. As they age and become more active and interact with the world, their level of input gradually decreases until somewhere around age six to eight when their main operating system of core beliefs, personality and identity are completely constructed.

The brain’s core programming is constructed to do two things: keep us safe and conserve energy. Thus once our neural pathways are established, while new information is added, older information stays intact, running as background processes or auto-pilot. As a result, most people wander through life on this auto-pilot, still running the old programming installed by parents, grand-parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and community leaders. This is programming is our shell, the kernel of our operating system, the thing that holds us back and keeps our potential locked away. The good news is, we all possess the inner potential to break through that shell and grow. Although we gradually slow in our acquisition of new neural pathways, neuroplasticity is a process that continues to work until we die. This means that beautiful biological process that taught you everything you know and made you who you are is still at work today. Ultimately, you have the power to re-write your own brain, any time you choose.

Change is Possible

It’s possible. I know because I have done it, and continue to do it. I have managed to transform my life dramatically through the power of neuroscience and I know that you can too. But, because this is a science, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. In fact, I’d rather you didn’t. What I challenge you to do is simply to try it. Be a scientist. Engage in the pursuit of self-improvement and see what happens. What have you got to lose, other than a shell that was keeping you and your potential trapped in the dark?

Ultimately, you have the power to re-write your own brain, any time you choose.

Change Takes Time

But before we get to the heart of the experiment, let’s start with some research data to help you. First, establishing a new neural pattern generally takes about one month or 30-ish days. Re-writing an old neural pattern can take significantly longer depending on how plastic your brain was when it was written and how strong the pattern is based on repetition over time. Most experts who train others in successfully rewriting long established behaviour patterns have found that it can take anywhere from 60 days to a year. There are various methods that can shorten this time, but the point is that breaking free from your shell takes consistent daily effort. Just like learning to walk, or ride a bike, you need to be aware that it will take time to perfect any new neural pathway, but it can be done and will become as automatic as the examples once the pathway is established. Like the seed in our metaphor, your flower will not bloom after a single day’s effort, but rather a season of care of consistent growth. Change requires commitment.

As many people in the field say, there is a difference between being interested or being and being committed. Being interested means you will show up when it’s easy. Being committed means you will show up all of the time. Are you interested or are you committed? If you are committed, here is your first shell-shattering assignment. Write yourself a letter or statement of intent declaring your commitment. Get clear about what you want to change in your life and why you want to do so. Read it out loud to yourself and keep it somewhere safe for later reference.

Change requires commitment.

Keep a Record

Speaking of writing, get a notebook and keep a journal. How will you know the results of the experiment if you don’t collect and keep data? Seriously. When I was first introduced to this concept, I kept a detailed journal that tracked my progress by collecting data on the things that I was committed to changing in my life. Begin your notebook with your statement of intent. Consider this the introduction to your experiment. Write down what you plan to accomplish. Get clear about your goals. As you progress along your journey this notebook (and the many to follow) will be the perfect place to write down everything you learn. My notebooks are full of notes from online seminars and classes, research from books, personal plans, thoughts, results, etc. It’s your experiment log, so make it something that resonates with you. I know that when I thought of it as journaling, I was very disinclined to keep my notebook. When I thought of it as an experimental log, it was fun for a few months, but then it lost interest. Ultimately, turning mine into an art project that used colourful imagery created with metallic and sparkly gel pens was the perfect fit for me. Do what works for you. And please, experiment! That’s the point, right?

Change is Challenging

The second thing you must know about the self-improvement process is that you will experience kick-back. For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction, especially when it comes to your brain. Remember how the brain likes to avoid danger and conserve energy? New things are scary, and they might be dangerous. The brain doesn’t like that. New things cost energy to accomplish and the brain doesn’t really like that either. This means two very important things. Expect a reaction. Know that you will have a series of amazing days where progress is sweet like victory, and then suddenly the world falls in. You will have bad days and intense reactions. That’s ok. In fact, that’s better than ok. That’s bloody fantastic! Why? It means you’ve made progress. Much like video games, the brain will throw boss monsters at you when you’re getting ready to clear an area. If you can think of these times as a sign that you’re on the right track, you will overcome them more quickly. Also, plan accordingly. Be as sneaky as possible when rewiring your brain. Use methods that conserve energy and work with existing ideas. Develop a strategy of self-care for bad days. If you know they’ll happen and you’re prepared for them, you will be much less likely to stay stuck in a rut.

Pay Attention

If I could impart one piece of advice about your journey it would be to pay attention. Learn to simply be aware of your thoughts. There are many different techniques that can help you achieve this. The simplest is to be aware of your emotions. When you find yourself happy, especially for no apparent external reason, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. When something good does happen externally, listen to your self-talk about the positive things. Write these things down in your notebook for later reference when you need guidance in a difficult moment. So too, be aware of the inverse. If you find yourself growing negative, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. When something “bad” happens, pay attention to your self-talk about the subject. Learn to listen to your inner narrative. With practice, you can catch the spiral of negative thinking as it begins and turn it around. Write this down as well. This will allow you to discover your unconscious patterns and help identify areas of programming that need to be weeded out.

Be aware of your own judgements. Whenever you find yourself judging someone, pay attention to what you are judging about them. These judgements are keys to finding the roots of your programming as they reveal the ways in which you are restricting yourself. Write down any judgements you find yourself making throughout the day so that you can go back and work on them. There are a variety of techniques that will allow you to work on these, but start by simply being aware.

Self-care begins with meeting your basic needs

Listen to Your Body

If you’ve spent your life on auto-pilot (which almost everyone has), you’ve probably also spent your life ignoring the physical signals your body sends you. Self-care begins with meeting your basic needs. Learn to identify and distinguish when you are hungry, when you are tired, when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Remember, seeds need sunlight and water to grow.

Once you’ve established your physical well-being it will be much easier to recognize physical cues from your body. Your body will send subtle signals that correspond with the emotion you are feeling. Are your shoulders suddenly hunched and curved in? Did your stomach suddenly work itself into knots? Do you suddenly feel nauseated? There are many different physical reactions your body has to unconscious thoughts. Learning to be mindful of those signals can cue you to examine your thoughts and ask what it was that led you to react that way.

Find What Works (for You!)

The self-improvement neuroscience world is full of methods and techniques that have worked for people. That doesn’t mean they will always work for you. Pay attention to your physical responses when working with a technique. If you’re working to clear an old program and you stumble upon something that makes you cry, chase it. Tears are your body’s way of ridding itself of stress hormones. If you’ve spent a lifetime blocking your emotions and suppressing your misery, there will be a store of stress hormones in your body. Not only does crying function as an emotional signal to tell you that you’ve successfully uncovered a line of coding, it also washes the toxins out of your body. If you’ve stored a lot of stress in your body it can result in physical pain, especially if your neural pathways are stuck on “flight or fight” mode. Releasing that stress can also result in physical shaking as the muscles release.

If you find something provokes an extremely happy emotional response in you (think of the stereotypical response to weddings and babies), make note of it. Write that thing down in your notebook, save a copy of it, find some way to incorporate that thing into your process. Paying attention to positive things will gradually rewire your brain to habitually focus on the positives in every situation. Cultivating a collection of positive things will also build your toolbox for uplifting yourself in times of need.

Make Yourself a Priority

Commitments are priorities. Thus, if you are committed to self-improvement, you MUST make yourself a priority. I know, it’s fraking hard. But seriously, though. You wouldn’t feel your partner was committed if they never made you a priority. The same is true of your relationship with yourself. You have to show up for yourself to change. This means you need to plan to change. Incorporate your daily practice into your daily rituals. Set aside time in your day (ideally twice a day, once in the morning and once at night) to work on yourself. Yes, I’m serious.

Start Your Day off Right

Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so too is your morning routine the most important part of your mental health and self-care. The morning sets the tone for our entire day, so starting it off in a manner that deliberately cultivates our happy place is key to having a good day. Remember way back in the introduction how we discussed the change in our bran’s plasticity as we age? This is due largely to the type of brainwaves present. Children spend more time in levels of consciousness associated with creativity, meditation, and sleep. Whether the result of ageing or societal influence, research shows that adults spend far more time at the “conscious” level of brainwaves. However, most of our programming was created at the lower levels of brainwaves when the brain is most receptive to new ideas. This is why meditation and brainwave entrainment techniques have proven to be so successful. They return the brain to a more plastic state, allowing people to alter the brain more effectively.

When we sleep, we naturally move between brainwave cycles. This means we are not entirely awake when we initially wake up. Ever notice how it takes some people longer than others to be fully aware? This is because the brain is still in the slower levels of consciousness. This means that morning is the perfect time to create new neural pathways because the brain is in a softer, more receptive and open state.

Create a Morning Routine

Make your morning routine begin upon awakening. The first hour or so of your day should revolve around self-care. Take your list of successful methods and figure out which ones work best to start your day. Ideally, your practice should address your emotional, mental, and physical health each morning. Mornings are an excellent time to set an intention. By consciously choosing your focus for the day, you are creating a line of coding in a more accessible brainwave. By creating a morning routine and consciously cultivating it until it becomes a neural pathway, you can rewrite your autopilot and use your brain’s inclination for the conservation of energy to your advantage. With enough practice, starting your day off in a positive mood will become second nature and good days will become more common than not. Eventually, this neural pattern will become deep enough that it will no longer require any effort to feel good most of the time.

End the Day Right

Ever notice how watching a horror movie or playing a scary video game before bed can cause you to have nightmares all night? This is because the brain uses its downtime to process all the data it collected during the day. Therefore whatever was last on your mind or emotions will manifest itself in your dream state. And bad dreams have the power to substantially mess up your morning the next day by leaving you feeling groggy, grumpy, or stressed. To ensure a restful night’s sleep, you need to enter sleep from a restful mental state.

Create a Nighttime Routine

Clearing out your mental headspace before bed is an essential task. Make time to process your day, including dealing with any emotional states that came up. Journal your observations of the day, review issues you had, praise yourself for succeeding. Release any pent up emotions or tension from the day. Use your favourite calming techniques to relax back into a more receptive state. Spend the last 15-30 minutes (or more) before bed with a bedtime routine designed to relax you. As with your morning routine, consciously cultivating this habit will mean that it will become part of your unconscious programming and bad dreams will gradually lessen and disappear. Any uncomfortable dreams you do have will be clues to unconscious fears and beliefs that need addressing.

Speaking of which, start recording your dreams. Make a habit of writing down what you remember, good or bad. Your unconscious mind is processing while you’re asleep and it has a language of symbols that can help you interpret what is truly happening on your deeper levels of consciousness. By recording your dreams you will begin to notice recurring symbols and themes which can indicate issues that need addressing. With enough practice communicating with your unconscious this way, you will gain fluency in your brain’s inner language. With such fluency, dreams often become more peaceful and informative.

Bedtime is also an excellent time to prepare for the following day. Setting intentions, asking questions, making gratitude lists and other techniques can shift your mental focus to a more peaceful and conducive sleeping state resulting in better sleep and a better day the following day. With enough practice, this can influence your dreams and allow you to reprogram your mind while asleep. Advanced practices such as lucid dreaming can aid you in this practice and be a powerful technique for transformation.

Practice Makes… a Program!

The key to successfully changing your neural pathways is repetition. Little acts done over time are often more successful than blunt force attacks concentrated in a single session. Remember, change takes time. But with time and practice come perfection. Your brain naturally wants to follow a pattern, so create patterns that benefit you!

Hopefully, I’ve given you a lot to think about, as well as an idea of where to start. When you’re ready, head on over to Part Two:

30 Easy Ways to Improve Your Mood

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