How To Use Your Mind To Change Your Brain, From A Psycho-Neurobiologist
My entire career has been spent researching one question: How do we manage our minds?
Nearly 38 years ago, I started working with people who had severe learning disabilities, trauma and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), autism, and dementia to study what exactly the mind is, how it works, and most importantly, how we can work with it.
One very important lesson that I've learned during this time is that the mind is very different from the brain. The mind is a gravitational field, an electromagnetic force that moves through the brain and gives it life.
Our mind drives everything, yet the current mental health field pays very little attention to the mind because of its very strong focus on the brain being the source of mental health issues (called the biomedical model). In reality, the source or cause of mental disease lies within our life experiences.
What we're getting wrong about the mind-brain-body connection.
The mind uses the brain in that life is processed through the brain and body, so we see the impact in the brain, not the cause in the brain. Case in point: Scientific evidence does not support the message that depression is a localized, disordered neural circuit or that depression can be predicted by genes or chemical imbalances. This was recently confirmed again by three 2022 comprehensive research reviews by top researchers and scientists in the field.
We need mind management, not another diagnosis unrelated to what's really going on in our lives based on false scientific assumptions that mislead the public by placing the blame on the individual's biology. Anxiety, depression, and mental health battles can be far more accurately predicted by chronic unmanaged life stressors, childhood trauma, loneliness, and issues like racism, sexism, and so on.
Using anxiety and depression as warning signals, not symptoms.
The mind is how we constantly process and react to our outward experiences. How we manage our minds can cause unparalleled joy but also immense suffering.
Take, for example, someone who experiences a trauma. Our mind is the processor that filters the experience into our brains and bodies, and this creates actual structural changes in the brain (neuroplasticity), which impacts how we function. It can cause us to experience a cascade of negative physical effects: inflammation, high cortisol levels, etc. But this all starts in the mind, and it can end with it, too.
Over my decades of research and clinical application, I've found that it's absolutely possible to direct your mind and change the way it impacts your body. You can actively observe the way your experiences have been written into your existence and shift the way your mind, brain, and body react to them.
This process of embracing, processing and reconceptualizing, and ultimately rewiring (deconstructing, reconstructing), is what I call the neurocycle process.
It starts by preparing the brain to calm the neurophysiology of the mind-brain-body connection (psychoneurobiology) through bthings like breathwork, meditation, and mindfulness exercises. But this is not enough for sustainable long-term change. This is where the five steps of the Neurocycle® step in to take you beyond, into mind management. The five steps are:
- Gather awareness by identifying the four warning signals from our nonconscious telling us that we are showing up in a certain way because of what's going on in our life. These are our emotions (like anxiety and depression), behaviors (what we say and do), bodily sensations (like headaches, GI symptoms), perspectives (how we are looking at life because of what's going on in our lives).
- Reflect on why you have the warning signals and what you want to change.
- Write down your thoughts into a system called the Metacog® that develops deep insight.
- Recheck to examine what you've written and reconceptualize your thoughts into a possibilities mindset.
- Create an "Active Reach," which is a simple statement/action/visualization you can do each time those thoughts creep up.
These steps can be tremendously helpful not just for changing your mental state but for shifting your physical state as well—and managing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can be used for addressing trauma, chronic stress, in-the-moment triggers, and more. This is how your mind works, so the neurocycle can really be used for anything!
As mentioned above (and there is plenty of research to back this up1), depression does not occur because of a chemical imbalance. You're not depressed because you are lacking serotonin; you are most likely depressed because something is going on in your life that needs to be addressed. Mental illness is not the same as something like diabetes or cancer. It can't be traced back to a biological or neurobiological cause that can be treated with medication alone.
The current biomedical model makes people feel like any negative thought is a disease. It is my believe that feeling depressed is not a disease; it is a response. And it's a warning signal that it's time to begin managing your mind.
How to practice daily mind management using the Neurocycle® app.
To make these five steps of the Neurocycle® more accessible to everyone (because we can all benefit from detoxing our minds), I've created the Neurocycle app, which guides you to practice these steps for 15 to 45 minutes daily for 63 days. (By the way, the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit is largely a myth; 63 days is truly what it takes to rewire your mind-brain-body connection.)
The app's prompts are designed to help you get to the root of the experiences that are driving your actions, clean them up, and reconstruct a new "thought tree," so to speak, by cleaning up the roots.
My intention was to make a resource that is simple to follow and can be used at any time, by anyone. It's extremely helpful even for those who are already undergoing some form of therapy (you're living with yourself 24/7; you're not going to see your therapist 24/7) and our research, which is ongoing, has shown that the Neurocycle® is up to 81% effective at helping people manage feelings of anxiety and depression.
Around 500,000 users worldwide have used Neurocycle® to shift the way their minds—and in turn, their bodies—work. In our most recent clinical trial, which is currently being written up in multiple scientific journals, those who used Neurocycle® for nine weeks not only managed to identify the source of their anxiety and depression and manage their mind but were also found to have changes in telomere length (DNA sequences that correspond to biological aging; the shorter your telomeres, the older your body acts) that corresponded to gaining almost 30 years of biological health. And that's just after nine weeks.
This research shows the power of the mind to make changes that can be felt across all aspects of our lives—from our sleep to our work to our relationships.
Through this process of mind management, the Neurocycle®, we learn to listen to our warning signals and use them as clues to rewire our mind/brain/body connection. In doing this, we can gain control over our narratives. We can't change our story, but we can change what it looks like inside of us and how it plays out in our future.
There are no "bad" emotions. All emotions are messengers pointing us to an experience in our past that is ingrained in our mind, brain, and body. Instead of being suspicious of your emotions or seeing them as a sign of weakness or illness, I invite you to use the Neurocycle® app to follow your emotions to their roots and engage the mind to write a new story for yourself that you are proud to share with the world.
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. She received her masters and Ph.D. in communication pathology, as well as a BSc in logopaedics from the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa and in the USA, she developed a theory about how we think, build memory, and learn (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory). The learning process has been turned into a tool for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementias and mental ill-health issues like anxiety and depression.
Leaf is author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She teaches at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences, churches, and to various audiences around the world. Dr. Leaf is also involved in the global ECHO movement, which trains physicians worldwide on the mind-brain-body connection, mental health and how to avoid physician burnout.