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I totally geeked out in this blog post. Bear with me, though, because this information is very powerful!
In my last blog post, I talked about how mental calmness comes down to a choice. If you missed that one, go check it out now, before continuing here: Mental calmness: “You’re always so calm!” and other nonsense.
At the end of that blog post, I promised that today’s email would elaborate on the brain’s incredible ability to change.
So, here we GO.
Do you ever get frustrated and ask, “Will I EVER learn to react differently to this?” or “Will I EVER stop worrying about that?”
This happened to me this week. I had to remind myself that yes, it is 100% possible to stop reacting in a certain way or thinking along certain lines.
I don’t even need to know the specifics of your unique scenario. I know it’s possible to change your brain.
First, a tiny lesson in neuroanatomy… from someone who is absolutely NOT a neuroanatomist.
The brain loves shortcuts (called "neural pathways").
Our brain makes up 2% of our body mass but consumes up to 20% of our energy. (That little glutton!) So, to conserve energy, it creates shortcuts (or neural pathways) based on things we do over and over again.
Think of learning to tie your shoes. In the beginning, it was hard work! You had to really think about it – “Bunny ears, bunny ears” and all that. But, by practicing it over and over again, the brain "got" it and created a shortcut (neural pathway) for this task so that you didn't have to waste so much energy thinking so hard about it every single time you wanted to run out the door.
It’s the same with learning a new instrument. In the beginning you have to think so hard about which piano keys to press when you see specific circles and lines on the sheet music. However, the more you practice, the more playing the piano becomes second nature. That’s thanks to the shortcuts the brain created for this activity.
These pathways in the brain exist for all kinds of situations and stimuli, not just physical things like tying your shoes or playing the piano.
Maybe you repeatedly encounter a certain obstacle in your work and, over time, you've learned that that obstacle is best overcome with a specific set of actions. Your brain will create a shortcut for that and take you there automatically.
Or when your baby cries a certain way, your brain recognizes that specific cry as meaning they are hungry and it's time to feed them.
A lot of these pathways are incredibly helpful… but certainly not all.
The issue is that the brain creates shortcuts for anything you do often.
Someone cuts you off in traffic? You might have a well-worn neural pathway that says "Cue being pissed off and thinking about how self-centered that #*%$ driver surely is." because that's always what you end up doing and your brain made a shortcut to that reaction.
Someone sends you a text that says "Can you call me as soon as you can?" Your brain knows to go directly to "OMG. Who is sick?! Who is dying?! Who DIED?!", along with an increased heart rate and feelings of dread because that's always how you end up reacting.
Something gets added to your already overloaded "to do" list at work? Your brain knows that you normally panic about how you won't have enough time to get it all done and you'll probably fail and then get fired. So, your brain just takes you there immediately to save you the trouble of getting there on your own.
In all these examples, your brain then says "You're welcome. I saved you SO much time. Riiiiiight?!"
It's time to use our imagination.
Imagine, for a moment, a forest where you might frequently go for a walk. There's a trail in that forest that is very well-traveled. Every time you go to that forest, you take the same trail. You know it so well! It's easy!
That trail is like a well-worn pathway in your brain.
Now imagine that that trail represents a neural pathway that you don't like. Maybe you don't like that you immediately assume you are going to fail and get fired every time someone gives you a new task at work.
Reacting in that way is like booking it at top speed down that well-worn trail in the forest.
However, perhaps you are really trying to not get so worked up over new tasks at work and focus on one thing at a time. So, the next time someone adds to your "to do" list, you catch yourself and think, "Right. I don't want to run away with my worries about failing and getting fired. I want to just accept the task and keep my cool."
When you do that, it's like you're stepping off that well-worn path in the forest to blaze a NEW trail. When you do that, you're forging a new pathway in your brain.
But it's hard work! You might have to climb over fallen trees, cut down branches, trudge through thick brush. Maybe your arms get scratched, you get a spiderweb in the face, or you step in bear poop.
So, when you get a new task at work the time after that, your brain says - in a Matthew McConaughey voice, obviously - "Yeah… So, here's the thing: That new path sucks. It's too much work. I don't want to go there! I just got my hair done and am wearing new sneakers. Let's take this old path because it is alllright." And, just like that, you revert to your old ways: the panic, the jumping to conclusions, the worrying about getting fired.
That's okay. It certainly makes sense that you would do this; it's easier to take the old neural pathway. This is why, when we're trying to create a new habit, we revert to the old one so much. It's just that, in the beginning, the neural pathway for the old habit we are trying to change is more inviting than the new pathway.
Remember this, though: You created a first pass on that new pathway. Even if you don't take it again for a year, it's still there and, when you choose to take it again, it will be a little bit easier. Every time you take the new trail, every time you choose to react differently or to redirect your focus away from unhelpful thoughts, the path becomes a little bit more inviting and it gets a little bit easier.
Eventually, that new pathway will be as well-travelled as - and then MORE inviting than - the old one!
Et voilà! Taking the scenic route in your brain pays off! You'll then have a new ingrained reaction, habit, or thought pattern.
And THAT is how what I said in my last newsletter comes to be: “... we can train our brain to focus less on unhelpful thoughts, by systematically shifting our focus away from them. Over time, our brain will automatically take us to those thoughts less and less."
This is called neuroplasticity. It’s the brain's ability to change and adapt.
And it is so comforting!
Whenever I ask myself, "Will I EVER stop worrying about this?!" or "Will I EVER learn to react differently to XYZ?!" or "Will I EVER cement this new habit?!", I know the answer can be "yes".
Yes, it takes practice and time and patience, but it is possible to create new habits and reactions, which can replace our old worn-out ways of engaging with life.
Thank you for reading!
LORA Concepts Inc.
workplace engagement & well-being
p.s. The information, insight, and advice I share through my work is meant to exist alongside whatever else you may be doing to bolster your mental health, manage stress, or improve your well-being. Nothing I share is meant to replace directives or treatment plans provided by your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare professional.