Yes, You Can Change Your Brain: How To Do It In 5 Steps, From A Neuroscientist
Your brain is constantly changing. It's a little notion called "neuroplasticity." Even though your brain is a physical structure, it changes based on what you're thinking, feeling, choosing, eating, and more. As you think, feel, and make decisions, you generate quantum energy waves through your brain, and your brain responds electromagnetically and chemically.
Needless to say, our brains change quite a lot throughout our lifetime. But can we take control of that process? According to communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., we absolutely have the ability to direct the plasticity process in our favor. Whether it's dealing with emotional trauma, anxiety, or simply expanding your knowledge-base (before a test, perhaps), we can restructure our brains and transfer that energy in a positive direction. "Plasticity happens whether you like it or not, so it helps to be in control of the process," she says.
How do we take control, you ask? All it takes is a little mindfulness. "The mind is key for getting control over your brain," Leaf adds. Good news: Leaf has a handy five-step process for changing your brain (with an emphasis on mindfulness, it turns out.) Here's exactly how to do it, below:
Step 1: Gather.
First, you have to gather awareness. You can do so in a multitude of ways: Leaf suggests meditation, breathwork, even a mindful diet or exercise can help prepare your brain for the work ahead. No matter which avenue you choose, become aware of how you're feeling and what you're thinking. If you're trying to reduce your anxiety, for example, the first step is to become aware of those signals: "What am I thinking? What are my warning signals? What's this nagging sensation?" Leaf suggests.
It's a touch more difficult than it sounds, especially because Leaf recommends limiting yourself to seven to 30 minutes a day. "Because of the emotional weight, you need to limit yourself to a little at a time," she says. That being said, it could take days before you feel ready to move on to the next stage.
Step 2: Reflect.
The second step, says Leaf, is deliberately asking yourself the "why" questions. Become focused on what you're trying to learn—be it managing anxiety, schoolwork, or prepping for an interview—and reflect on any unconscious thoughts that start to crop up. Look at those emotional warning signals, and try to discover any information you can glean from those thoughts—are there any memories associated with what you're feeling?
Again, it's not quite a linear process. "Sometimes people push it back down, and you have to gather again and go back and forth," Leaf says. Perhaps you spend a couple of minutes gathering, then around five minutes reflecting in one sitting; as mentioned, you might have to break it up into days.
Step 3: Write.
The first two steps arguably require the most heavy lifting. (Trust us: Inner work is not easy). But when you're finally ready for Step 3, Leaf says to grab a pen and paper and begin writing (note: not typing). "There's so much science behind writing," she says. "When you write, you activate certain parts of the brain in a beautiful way."
When you're writing down your thoughts, you're able to achieve cognitive fluency and quite literally get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, which is important, especially for managing anxiety: "Otherwise, you're pushing [the thoughts] into your body, down to the level of your cells," says Leaf. Of course, you might feel a stress response while you're writing, but at least you're releasing those thoughts from your body, says Leaf, rather than squashing them down.
Step 4: Reconceptualize.
Look at what you've written: How can you reframe your thoughts into a possibilities mindset? "Take the sting out of the emotions," says Leaf. "See it differently, so your story builds your resilience." That way, you'll feel agency over your thoughts rather than feeling overwhelmed by a wave of emotions. As Leaf remarks, "We need to have a process of managing your mind."
Step 5: Active reach.
The last step, according to Leaf, is to take what you've written down and reconceptualized and discover a simple action you can do each time those thoughts creep up. For example, you might pledge to take deep, slow breaths to the count of three (a common active reach Leaf has discussed with Navy SEALs). Or you might have a mantra you say to yourself at least seven times during the day, to consciously remind yourself of your own control. No matter what works for you, choose a task that's easy to keep up with during the day.
An important note: This process is not meant to be completed in a single day. Brain building takes work, and it requires long-term commitment. In fact, Leaf says, it takes 63 days for neuroplasticity to occur. "It takes 21 days to break down your thoughts and start the building process, but real neuroplasticity happens after 63 days," she says.
So be patient: If you're trying to rewire your brain to become less anxious, for instance, you might still feel stressed after the five steps are completed. Don't fight it, but don't lose hope, either. After all, changing your brain is no easy feat. As Leaf states, "You have to recreate the future, so give yourself those days."