Resolutions and Maintaining Healthy Lifestyle Choices with the Help of Neuroplasticity by Lauren White, MA, LPCC
Imagine that you’re walking through a field of grass. As you take a step, the green blades bend and flatten, but return to their upright position after some time. Now, if you walked through that same field of grass everyday, in the same spot, eventually the grass would flatten and die and you would build a small bunny trail. The longer you use the bunny trail, the wider and deeper it would grow, until you had a sizable walking path.
The human brain is, in many ways, a field of grass - our repetitive thoughts and behaviors build hundreds of different bunny trails, some healthy and some unhealthy. As the new year begins, many people will make resolutions to try to build a new healthy habit or discontinue an unhealthy one and many will find that they do not stick to the changes long term. Understanding neuroplasticity, and how to utilize your brain to your advantage, could help make you more successful.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to learn, change, and adapt. For many years, many believed that the ability of the brain to do this was limited from birth until we reached our mid-twenties and our frontal lobes finished developing. Thankfully, this is not the case, and we are able to build new neural pathways throughout our lives, and benefit greatly from doing so.
So, how could this be useful for your therapy, general well being, or New Year’s resolutions? Luckily, you can intentionally choose to build new neural pathways; we do this all the time when we listen to a new song, or learn a new skill, and there are some steps that can help make the process faster and more effective. Brains already use so much of our body’s daily energy that building new neural pathways is often a struggle. How many of us have resolved to do something healthy...and the next thing we know we’ve failed again? It isn’t because we don’t WANT to do the healthy behavior, or think in a healthier way, but because our brain already has a REALLY BIG bunny trail for the maladaptive behavior and...completely untouched grass for the healthy one. From an energy cost perspective, doing what we’ve always done is just easier and less costly at that exact moment. Of course, given enough time, not building healthy neural pathways can result in a multitude of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that ultimately hurt us more. So, if you’ve ever wondered why you feel like you can’t just DO the thing you want to, rest assured it happens to most of us, and your brain is basically acting like a fussy toddler.
As a clinician, the complaint I hear the most is “I’m doing all the healthy stuff and I still don’t feel better yet. It’s not working!” What most people don’t realize is that building a neural pathway takes a long time. How long have you engaged in an unhealthy habit, or a maladaptive thought? Weeks? Months? Years? For many, their struggles have been long standing. If we go back to the field analogy: walking on the same path for 5, 10, or 15 years is going to look MUCH different than if you’ve walked on a path for 5 weeks. The problem isn’t that it isn’t working, it’s that the first neural pathway is still bigger and more powerful.
We just need to make the new pathway bigger. Here are a few steps that can help do that.
1. Tip of the iceberg. When we engage in an unhealthy thought or behavior, our brains are wired in such a way that you don’t only have our immediate unhealthy thought, our brain will also subconsciously supply us with every bit of evidence it has to support that belief. So, if you think “I can’t succeed,” your brain will go through every memory and thought it has related to failure. Likewise, when we think positively, our brain will supply us with all of those similar positive experiences. The more you think and engage in healthy behaviors, the more positive feedback loops you tap into, and the more likely you are to keep thinking and doing better.
2. Repetition, repetition, repetition. When it comes to building a neural pathway, your brain has an awful time at determining truth/lie, good/bad, and healthy/unhealthy. It typically has a tendency to go “the most experienced must mean truth,” which basically means that whatever you do and think the most becomes your truth and sense of self whether it’s true or not. Most of us can probably identify an unhealthy belief we hold about ourselves that isn’t actually logical or even correct, but we’ve thought it so long we accept it as true. In therapy, these are commonly known as cognitive distortions. Repeating new cognitive reframes or affirmations is a great way to build those new positive pathways. Once you have come up with some healthier thoughts and behaviors, just keep practicing them over and over.
3. “Do, or do not, there is no try.” I’m quoting Yoda, here, but he’s right. Even if you do not currently believe the healthy thought or positive affirmation you are practicing, or even if you don’t like engaging in the healthy habits you are trying to adopt, the more you do them, the better it becomes. You don’t have to believe or like it for it to positively rewire your brain. Say your reframes and positive affirmations out loud. Sing them. Jump around and recite them. Write them down. Put them on sticky notes everywhere. Go out and do whatever healthy behaviors you have planned. Bringing our physical body into the equation helps integrate your experiences more deeply, as you are tapping into multiple sensory systems in your brain. Which means, you’re still building a new bunny trail, but now you have a lawn mower. A lot of people feel fake when they are first trying a new reframe or positive affirmation. I often hear “but I don’t actually feel this way about myself.” I know. That’s the unhealthy neural pathway and you’ve fallen onto it again. Your brain only thinks it’s true because it’s heard it so many times. You’re not going to feel different until that new path is there and you have to build it. Doing these healthy behaviors will help you build it and then someday soon you will actually believe all the good stuff about yourself.
4. Once more, with feeling. Now that we’re doing and thinking better, it’d be nice to give our new neural pathway some major fire power. Our brains are wired to remember strong emotional moments, so anything we can do to add any emotional boosts is good. Physical exercise, music, positive podcasts or social media influences, the buddy system, creative endeavors, etc., are all great options. Music is especially helpful in eliciting powerful emotions and playlists are a great way to boost your mood. The more positive emotion you can add to these exercises, the better. Like physically moving your body, you’re supercharging your brain with feel good neurochemicals, and that will help reinforce new thoughts or habits. It’s like the emotional equivalent of giving your brain a cookie. Who doesn’t want a cookie? Cookies are good, and your brain wants healthy emotional ones.
5. Channel your inner tortoise. The good news is that even if your unhealthy neural pathway took years to develop, you probably did it unconsciously. Consciously focusing on new thoughts and behaviors will build the new one WAY faster. It may still take several months, but that’s still a lot less than multiple years. Be patient and STICK TO IT. You can’t see your neural pathways building and, unfortunately, this is a major reason people stop doing healthy things. But the neural pathways are building and are there, so stay the course. It will help. I promise.
6. Birds of a feather. Remember, your brain believes what it hears the most. Make sure you are spending time with people and influences that are consistently helping to feed into healthy beliefs and lifestyle choices. If you need to take a break from social media, or spend less time with someone who puts you down and makes you feel bad, then do so. Surround yourself with people and influences that are channeling the same healthy energy that you are, and will uplift, encourage, and support you.
7. Be concrete. The more specific and definite your goals or thoughts are, the better. Try to avoid vague statements like “I will hopefully be more motivated tomorrow” and, instead, say something like “I will accomplish _____ tomorrow.” Don’t leave gaps for your unhealthy beliefs to sneak in and derail you. If you are already doing this, and still struggling to accomplish your goals, try breaking them down into smaller and more easily managed tasks to see if that helps fix the problem. We have a tendency to bite off more than we can chew, even when we aren’t operating as our best selves.
8. Sleep, meditation, medication. As in all things, you need sleep. Sleep allows your brain a break to process the new skills you’re building and integrate them more fully. Also, no one functions well when they’re tired and cranky. Meditation or mindfulness exercises also allow your brain the space to keep building and making those new, healthy connections. It also allows you the time to sit and examine whether you are staying in your healthiest mindset. And, of course, if you are on a prescribed medication, continue taking it. Or, if you have been getting help for some time and are seeing very limited improvement, medication may help give your brain the boost it needs so that your work will be more effective.
9. It’s a journey, not a destination. The last most common problem I see happens after people have successfully been engaging in healthy changes for a few weeks or months. They start to feel better, and then stop doing all of their healthy coping skills. Remember, those unhealthy neural pathways have probably been forming for a huge portion of your life. If you want these changes to be long lasting, you’re going to have to do them for a really long time. Although, if you’re choosing healthy options, the change may well be lifelong because it’s good for you and hopefully enjoyable. You’re feeling and doing better because the skills and changes are working. Don’t stop, or you could regress and start feeling worse again.
Cultivating a healthy mindset and lifestyle are not always easy and require consistent work and dedication. Those struggling with mental health issues have even more to contend with, but hopefully some of these suggestions will help you better understand your mind, struggles, and come up with more effective solutions for continuing to be your best self. These are only a few of the multiple options available to try, and some of these suggestions may not be effective for treating certain mental health issues. However, they can be utilized by anyone for overall mental health and wellness. There are several wonderful books and resources that talk about neuroplasticity that provide help on healthy cognitions and other activities. For an easy, comprehensive look at neuroplasticity in its totality, I’d recommend “The Power of Neuroplasticity” by Shad Helmstetter.
Now that 2020 is over, hopefully we can all take the time to consciously choose how we want to proceed into the new year, and make 2021 a better year than last year was. I wish you all health and happiness, and I believe each of you has the power within you to keep reaching for your best self. Although, should you need a little extra help, we are all here to help you however we can. Happy New Year!
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