Written by Ivette Moutzouris
This is a really interesting question and the good news is that recent studies suggest that this is very possible. These new discoveries in neuroscience show that the brain is actually “soft-wired”. This means that the brain is basically able to rewire parts of itself that are responsible for such things as emotions (i.e. depression, anxiety), sleeping habits, memory, and social habits.
In his book called “Rewire Your Brain” John B. Arden talks about how this is possible in various areas of your life. Sometimes the explanations can be a little complicated (not particularly light reading if you can’t get to sleep!) but extremely helpful, informative and encouraging and for this reason I will outline some of the key areas of plasticity of the brain and how you can practically rewire and provide new connections as mentioned in his book.
“You cannot change how you think or feel without changing your brain”
The premise here is that rewiring your brain can create changes that you have been looking for. Obviously this will take time and effort but studies have shown that certain behaviours and activities (sometimes known as evidence based psychology) can and will assist in changes that a person may desire.
In other words your genes don’t dictate how things have to be, that is your thoughts, feelings, behavior. The connections that are made in your brain between neurons and their messengers (i.e. neurotransmitters) is highly important. In Neuroscience studies it’s been shown that certain connections are obviously more favourable than others and can enhance our overall sense of well-being.
So how does this work? How can I practically create these new connections so that I feel calmer and overall more positive?
The key is in knowing what activities need to be initiated and repeated so that a new connection can be made and if repeated again and again it will most likely remain because of the rewiring that has taken place. For example we tend to remember in more detail memories from our past that we choose to recall repeatedly. If you recount a childhood story again and again chances are you are going to remember this above other childhood experiences. This is basically because you keep it alive by repetition and in effect you create stronger connections in your brain regarding this memory and all the feelings that are attached to it.
In his book John Arden presents a simple formulae to help guide you to rewire your brain – it’s called FEED.
The first of these is focus and you need this in order to properly absorb and remember what it is you are trying to learn. Focus engages necessary parts of your brain and begins the process of neuroplasticity, that is the availability for the brain to be rewired. Mindfully being aware of every aspect of what you are doing can help you to zone into increased attention skills.
Effort means activating your brain in order to establish new connections. For example if you are nervous or anxious about a particular situation and you continue to think about it in a negative way without making an effort to create a new positive experience then you will remain stuck in that way of thinking/feeling. You will in affect remain anxious because you haven’t created change through experience. So effort or activity is essential in creating new changes and brain connections.
Effortless is the idea that once you have initiated a new behavior it will be easier the next time and gradually will require less energy and become more automatic. The example that this brings to mind is when you first learn how to drive. We all experience some anxiety and a lot of focus when we begin to learn but once we continue to drive more and more you require less mental energy because the behaviours have become more familiar and automated.
Determination is the idea that you continue to keep up the desired behavior in order to reap the benefits of feeling better, more confident, more calm.
Other aids that can fuel the brain and prepare it for rewiring include the food you eat, exercise, sleep and social medicine.
Eating healthy foods and particularly not skipping breakfast is important. For example if you skip breakfast you are increasing you energy and emotional related symptoms. John Arden states that you can experience low energy, difficulty concentrating, increased stress reactions, mood swings and increased anxiety and depression. One of the reasons is because eating a healthy breakfast is associated with lower cortisol (i.e. stress hormone) levels. Reducing sugar intake is also important because unnecessary amounts of sugar can trigger stress hormones that have effects for several hours.
Increasing aerobic exercise is important for various reasons. As well as the known physical affects it also pumps more oxygen to the brain which increases the health of small blood vessels. This contributes to building neuroplasticity of the brain meaning getting the brain ready and ripe for new activity to occur. Certain neurotransmitters are also increased through exercise such as serotonin. Increased serotonin levels has an antianxiety and antidepressant effect.
Sleep is equally important. A lack of sleep has shown to affect the ability to be attentive, learn new things and it also affects memory. “Studies have shown that sleep deprivation impairs the ability of these stem cells to grow and become new neurons”.
Social Medicine is basically about the need to have relationships and the positive impact this has on parts of our brain that regulate mood, sleep, health and so on. There is a lot of information on the lack of bonding/attachment etc and how it negatively affects an individual but to some up I will just say that relationship has many benefits that help contribute to brain development and emotional health.
*If you are interested in reading more on this topic a wealth of information can be found in John Arden’s book titled “Rewire Your Brain”.
Written by Ivette Moutzouris
Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre